TAMPA, Fla. – The ball hung in the air for what seemed like 61 years, spinning with the potential to break the Cardinals’ hearts and haunt their dreams.
And that’s exactly what it did. The pass landed in the hands of Pittsburgh receiver Santonio Holmes for a 6-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left, giving the Steelers a 27-23 victory in Super Bowl XLIII in front of 70,774 on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
It seems a cruel fate that after waiting 61 years for an NFL championship, the Cardinals came within a fingertip, a couple of toes and a few seconds of pulling off what seemed inconceivable a month ago when they entered the playoffs. The improbability of their playoff run makes losing no easier to take.
“To be so close and to have it snatched away, it hurts,” Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “I kind of feel empty now. It’s like it’s all for nothing.”
It was the Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl championship, an NFL record, and it came against a team that was playing in the game for the first time.
The Cardinals nearly wrote the perfect ending to a storybook postseason run that forced people to take them seriously. They scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, rallying from a 13-point deficit and nearly pulling off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.
The Cardinals displayed all the nerve and heart of a championship team. Using a no-huddle offense, they went on two touchdown drives, with the last score giving them a 23-20 lead with 2:37 remaining.
“There was too much time on the clock,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said, when asked what he was thinking when Fitzgerald scored on the 64-yard pass from Kurt Warner. “I felt maybe could at least hold them to a field goal and maybe go to overtime.”
The Cardinals’ defense, which had controlled the fourth quarter, couldn’t stop the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They had shut down the Steelers in the fourth quarter, pressuring Roethlisberger and forcing a safety that contributed to the Cardinals’ 16-point run.
The Cardinals couldn’t control Roethlisberger and Holmes at the most crucial time. Holmes busted a curl pattern for a 38-yard gain, and his final touchdown reception was one for the ages.
Roethlisberger’s pass sailed over the outstretched fingers of cornerback Ralph Brown, and two other Cardinals in the area couldn’t get to Holmes in time to break up the pass.
“They (the Steelers) made the plays at the end of the game,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s what good teams do.”
Holmes was selected the game’s MVP.
“Great players step up in big-time games to make plays,” Holmes said. “I kind of lost a little composure, you know, but I knew our defense would give us a chance to make it back.”
Added Roethlisberger: “I said it’s now or never, I told the guys all the film study you put in doesn’t matter unless you do it now. I’m really proud of the way they responded.”
The last minutes of the game will be replayed for years. The Cardinals closed the gap thanks to their spread offense. Warner went to work, completing all eight of his passes on a fourth-quarter drive.
The last one on the drive was a 1-yard fade route to Fitzgerald for a touchdown that brought the Cardinals to within 20-14. Arizona added a safety to make it 20-16.