TAMPA -- The greatest Super Bowl ever? Thanks to Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII may have just vaulted to the top of the list.
Holmes made an unbelievable touchdown catch with 35 seconds remaining, dropping both tiptoes into the end zone only inches from the sideline while being covered by three defenders, lifting the Pittsburgh Steelers to a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in a game for the ages at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium.
It was the sixth NFL championship for the Steelers, putting them first on the league's all-time list, surpassing the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, who each have five titles.
In none of their previous five wins, however, were any of their teams challenged like this. The Steelers took the field for their final drive with only 2:37 remaining, at their 22-yard line, trailing for the first time in the game, 23-20.
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They had squandered a 20-7 lead early in the quarter, and were on the verge of allowing the Cardinals to complete the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
Instead, it was one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history -- in a game that provided at least two of them -- that pushed the Steelers into the record books.
“We’ve got a team that doesn’t blink in the face of adversity,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “It’s never going to be pretty or perfect, but they’ve got a great deal of belief in one another. We’re a team, and that’s why there’s no division in our locker room. I’m just so proud of them. If I could win any way, it would be like that.”
Although he probably would have preferred not to watch the Cardinals storm back with a furious fourth quarter rally. Larry Fitzgerald, who put the finishing touches on the greastest postseason performance by a receiver in league history, caught two touchdown passes in the final frame, including a 64-yard strike from Kurt Warner with 2:37 remaining, giving Arizona its first and only lead of the game, 23-20.
On the previous possession, the Steelers were flagged for holding in their end zone, with center Justin Hartwig taking down a defender while trying to give Roethelisberger time to convert a 3rd and 10. Roethlisberger completed the pass to Holmes, perhaps a glimpse of things to come, but by rule the play was ruled a safety, only the second two-point play in Super Bowl history. That pulled the Cardinals within 20-16, and gave them the ball back for what looked like it might be the game-winning touchdown pass.
But Holmes -- and, perhaps more importantly, Roethlisberger -- wasn't done yet. The quarterback was responsible for 17 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime coming into the game since 2004, his rookie season, the most of any quarterback over that span. No quarterback has been more clutch, and no clutch situation was bigger than the 78-yard drive Roethlisberger engineered, finding Holmes four times, including the six-yard game-winner.
It earned Holmes, who had nine catches for 131 yards, the Most Valuable Player award, putting him in Steelers' lore with receivers such as teammate Hines Ward, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
“My feet never left the ground,” Holmes said. “All I did was extend my arms and use my toes as extension to catch the ball.
“The defensive back bit up on the short route, and Roethlisberger held onto the ball long enough to get it to me.”
Roethlisberger came into the game determined to play better than he did in his other Super Bowl victory, in 2005 against the Seattle Seahawks. Although the Steelers won their fifth title in that game, Rothlisberger didn't play well, completing only nine passes, throwing for the fewest yards ever by a winning quarterback. This time he earned his second ring with authority, completing 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
Statistically, he still took a back seat to Warner -- but then, that's the case for every other Super Bowl quarterback who's ever played. Warner has now played in three Super Bowls and holds the three top spots for passing yards. This time, he torched the Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense for 377 passing yards, more than twice Pittsburgh's season average. Too bad he didn't get much support from the Cardinals' running game, held to 33 yards on 12 carries.
Warner's other touchdown pass came in the first half to tight end Ben Petrick after the Steelers had scored on their first two possessions, a Jeff Reed field goal and a short run by Gary Russell. But with the Cardinals down 10-7 and driving at the end of the half for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown, history struck again.
This time, Warner tried to thread a pass to Fitzgerald in the end zone, but Steelers linebacker James Harrison -- the NFL's defensive player of the year -- picked off the ball at the goal line, weaved through the Arizona offense, tiptoed down the sideline and, completely out of air, was tackled by Fitzgerald as he crashed into the end zone with a 100-yard return and no time left on the clock. It was the longest play in Super Bowl history, and it sent the Steelers to the locker room with a 17-7 lead in a dramatic reversal of fortune for the teams.
“It was very tiring, but it was all worth it, “Harrison said. “I was just thinking that I had to do whatever I could to get to the other end zone and get seven. I just wanted to help my team win.”