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Sudden Shifts

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By Les Carpenter
Monday, February 2, 2009

TAMPA Within a half-hour after the Super Bowl had been taken from his hands, Kurt Warner had left the Raymond James Stadium field on Sunday night, pulled off his uniform, showered and put on a gray suit. He sat at a booth where the Super Bowl players were brought for interviews right after the game, staring at the mass of questioners, wondering how everything had changed so fast.

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"That's the nature of the beast," he said. "That's what happens in championship games. This is what it was going to come down to. That's the big difference between being champions and runners-up."

Everything switched in seconds in Super Bowl XLIII, destinies rewrote themselves, careers were redefined. At one moment on Sunday night, as he flicked a pass over the middle of the field and watched wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald race untouched for a touchdown, Warner must have thought he had won the Super Bowl. And what a football life this would have been for him: The only player to lead two franchises from the wastelands to the championship in a single season.

However, it was taken away by a single pass from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who fired a throw to the back corner of the north end zone that wide receiver Santonio Holmes caught. In one miraculous motion, Holmes clutched his side as he kept his feet inside the sideline for a catch that won the Super Bowl.

The moment took the Cardinals from their only Super Bowl championship to making the Steelers world champions for two of the last four seasons. This stands as a dynasty in today's NFL. It changes that fast.

For two straight years now we have seen one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history change the narratives of players and teams in a matter of seconds. Last February it was New York Giants wide receiver David Tyree who inexplicably caught a football against his helmet, then tumbled to the ground on a play that prolonged the drive that beat the New England Patriots, keeping the Patriots from going 19-0, which would have been the finest season in the league's history. Then Sunday there came a flurry of such moments. Each brought its own saga, none of it clear which would be the most memorable.

Was it linebacker James Harrison's interception of Warner's pass on the goal line just before halftime? The one where he tucked the ball under his arm and rumbled as fast as his weary, worn, 242-pound body could take him -- dodging Cardinals tacklers as he lunged and stumbled to the end zone for the touchdown that appeared to break Arizona? In 18 seconds he managed to take away a Cardinals touchdown and give one to his team.

"It was the single greatest defensive play in the history of the Super Bowl," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau later said. "I really believe that."

But when Warner heaved his touchdown pass to Fitzgerald, the one that went 64 yards for what should have been the game-winning score, Harrison's greatest defensive play in the history of the Super Bowl became an afterthought. It was replaced by Warner's throw, which was replaced 2 minutes 2 seconds later by Roethlisberger's pass to Holmes. Histories changing by the moment.

For years it wasn't like this. When the Steelers won their first four Super Bowl titles in their first dynasty of the 1970s, history didn't change as fast. Legacies were made over a whole game, sometimes culminating on a play late as with the Immaculate Reception, but never with such drama, with such instant reversal.

Yet we are an instant world now. Judgments are made suddenly about players and teams. Players are more skilled than ever, capable of greater feats. How Tyree pinned the ball against his helmet still no one knows. How Harrison was about to outrun the entire Cardinals offense for 100 yards without collapsing just before halftime was just as remarkable. So, too, was Warner's comeback and Holmes's catch. All of it the greatest of its era. All of it made in seconds.

In the moments after the game was over and the joy and despair had yet to sink in, the players all still looked a little stunned, unsure what to make of all that happened.


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