By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009
TAMPA, Feb. 1 -- The Pittsburgh Steelers became the most decorated team of the Super Bowl era with a memorably dramatic triumph over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. The Steelers were on their way to a relatively routine victory before squandering a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter, then regrouped and got a breathtakingly acrobatic touchdown catch by wide receiver Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds remaining to win, 27-23.
The Steelers won their NFL-record sixth Super Bowl title in their seven appearances. They were coasting along with a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter before surrendering 16 straight points to trail, 23-20. But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the Steelers 78 yards, the final six of them on a pass to Holmes, who somehow managed to get both his feet inbounds at the side of the end zone while stretching to make the grab.
"I thought it might have been out of bounds," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "I didn't know. But what a catch by Santonio. We're world champions because of that play."
Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner lost a fumble on a sack with five seconds to go to finally seal the outcome.
"It hurts," Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "It hurts to be so close and have it snatched away from you."
The Cardinals had rallied with two touchdown passes from Warner to Fitzgerald, a one-yarder and a 64-yarder, sandwiched around a safety on a holding penalty called against Steelers center Justin Hartwig in his end zone.
"Your emotions were so high with two minutes to go in the game," said Warner, who completed 31 of 43 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns. "We were two minutes from being the champions of the world. Then the emotions flipped. But I'm so proud of this football team. We gave ourselves a chance to win a world championship, and that other team over there went out and won it."
Roethlisberger became a two-time Super Bowl winner a month shy of his 27th birthday. He completed 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards. His final throw was the one that mattered.
"We call it 'scramble left, scramble right, find someone open,' " Roethlisberger said. "He got open. . . . My first read wasn't open. My second read wasn't open. I thought he was open there for a split second. He made a heck of a catch."
Holmes was named the game's most valuable player with nine catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. He had four catches for 73 yards on the winning drive.
"Ben gave me the opportunity," Holmes said. "He put the ball where only I could catch the ball. Once I got my hands on the ball, I wasn't gonna let go. I knew I had gotten my feet in. My feet never left the ground."
Warner lost for the second time in three career Super Bowl appearances, the first two of which came with the St. Louis Rams.
For much of the night, the Cardinals were plagued by mistakes in the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. They looked like the pitiable team that began this season with one winning season since 1984, and the one that went 0-5 on the East Coast during the regular season before going on a improbable playoff run.
The Cardinals were hurt by penalties and Warner threw an interception linebacker James Harrison returned 100 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first half. The longest play in Super Bowl history gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead at the intermission.
But Fitzgerald, held in check for most of the game by a Pittsburgh defense that ranked first in the NFL during the regular season, took over late with his two touchdowns. In between, Hartwig dragged down Cardinals linebacker Chike Okeafor for a safety.
"Words can't explain it," Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We were so close to being world champs, to being great. We let it slip through our fingers."
Tailback Gary Russell ran for a second-quarter touchdown to give the Steelers a 10-0 lead. Warner's first touchdown pass went to tight end Ben Patrick in the second quarter.
"It's always disappointing," Warner said. "We had a chance there at the end, but they made the plays to win the game. That's what championship teams are all about, and I tip my hat to them. . . . They made some tremendous plays. Santonio, what a catch. That's what champions are about."
Roethlisberger appeared to have a rushing touchdown on the game's opening drive. On a third-down play from the Arizona 1-yard line, he rolled to his right but couldn't find an open receiver. He decided to run but was met by Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, formerly of Paint Branch High School.
Roethlisberger bulled his way toward the goal line with Dockett holding on. The officials on the field signaled touchdown. But Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt, the Steelers' offensive coordinator for their last Super Bowl triumph, didn't agree and issued an instant replay challenge.
Roethlisberger had been awarded a controversial rushing touchdown three years earlier in the Super Bowl, but not this time. Referee Terry McAulay reversed the original call, ruling that Roethlisberger's knee had touched the turf before he reached the end zone. Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin decided against a fourth-down gamble and place kicker Jeff Reed's field goal provided a 3-0 edge.
The Cardinals went nowhere on their opening possession and punted, and the Steelers were back at it. Russell, a reserve tailback, scored a one-yard touchdown on the second play of the second quarter.
The Cardinals had been out-gained at that point, 145 yards to 13. But they had a swift reply as Warner found Anquan Boldin, the other Pro Bowl wideout for the Cardinals who had been plagued by a strained hamstring muscle during the playoffs and had a heated sideline exchange with offensive coordinator Todd Haley late in the NFC championship game, for a 45-yard catch and run to the 1. Warner stumbled after taking the snap on the next play but managed to flip a pass, as he backpedaled, to Patrick for the tight end's first touchdown all season.
Arizona got a defensive stop but wasted a 34-yard punt return by Steve Breaston. The Cardinals got another chance when Roethlisberger threw a tipped-ball interception to Dansby at the Pittsburgh 34. Five plays later, Fitzgerald made his first catch of the night to advance the ball to the 12. Two catches by Boldin gave the Cardinals a first down at the Steelers 1 and they took a timeout with 18 seconds left in the half.
Harrison, the NFL defensive player of the year, faked a blitz but dropped into coverage. Warner threw a pass toward Boldin, but Harrison stepped in front of him and made the grab at the goal line. He rumbled his way up the right sideline, maneuvering around Warner and outrunning tight end Leonard Pope and tackle Mike Gandy.
Fitzgerald and Breaston caught him at the opposite goal line, 100 yards from where Harrison began his record-setting journey, and pulled him down as the clock reached zero. Harrison fell on his head at the goal line. He remained on the ground for a few moments but got to his feet and walked off the field about the time McAulay announced the replay review confirmed Harrison had crossed the goal line and the touchdown counted.
"Obviously, the play right before the half hurt," Whisenhunt said, "and the penalties were something that was difficult to overcome."
The Cardinals had that gaffe to ponder in their locker room as Bruce Springsteen performed on the field at halftime, and Warner seemed to lose a fumble on a sack early in the third quarter. Whisenhunt challenged successfully again, as McAulay ruled on the replay review that Warner's arm had been going forward and called it incomplete.
The Cardinals punted and the Steelers, aided by two personal fouls on the Arizona defense, drove to a field goal by Reed. Veteran Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson committed yet another personal foul by bowling over holder Mitch Berger, and the Steelers took the three points off the board and got a first down at the 4-yard line. But they still couldn't get into the end zone and had to settle for Reed's field goal and a 20-7 cushion.