By: Bob George/
February 01, 2009

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TAMPA -- Cardinal fans will be gnashing their teeth. Fumble or no fumble? What, no review?

Yes, the Arizona Cardinals came up four points short in Super Bowl XLIII, but the fact that they drove a superior team like the Pittsburgh Steelers to near defeat despite a hail of penalties and what should have been a backbreaking interception return for a touchdown represents quite a noble achievement. For a franchise which has known such little success over the years, the Cardinals had everyone on the edge all Sunday night long, with an entire nation not connected with western Pennsylvania cheering them on, and they nearly pulled off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history.

The Steelers managed to hang on for the win thanks to a miracle touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes with 39 seconds left to give the AFC Champs a 27-23 win and their sixth Vince, the most won by any one team in NFL history. Just prior to Holmes' catch, the Cardinals had pulled out in front thanks to a safety and a stunning 64-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald. It was 23-20 Cardinals, having erased what had been a 20-7 deficit, the 13-point turnaround one better than the deficit the Washington Redskins came back from against the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII.

You can say that in the end, the better and more deserving team won, but credit Arizona for making a game of it. What the game came down to was the Cardinal defense unable to stop the Steeler offense when it had to, rather than the other way around. Warner was eventually able to solve the top defense in the league, but Roethlisberger once again was able to somehow complete lucky passes on the run to bring his team to victory. And it was the final Steeler drive which decided this game, and a 40-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Holmes which set up the two combining on the game-winning touchdown two plays later.

Early on, things were going as expected. The Steelers scored on their first two drives, and came within an eyelash of scoring touchdowns on their first two drives. The first drive ended in a Jeff Reed 18-yard field goal, the shortest field goal in Super Bowl history since former Steeler Roy Gerela kicked an 18-yarder in Super Bowl X. Roethlisberger seemed to score on a one-yard touchdown run, but a replay review showed that Big Ben's knee was down before the ball crossed the plane of the goal.

The Steeler game plan early on was simple: Take Larry Fitzgerald out of the game and dare Warner to beat them with either Steve Breaston and Anquan Boldin, not worrying much about the Cardinal running attack. By the time the Cardinals got the ball for the second time in the second quarter (following a first quarter that took less than a half hour to play), the Steelers had a 4-to-1 edge in time of possession, they outgained Arizona 140-13, and they led, 10-0.

Any questions there were about Warner handling the Steeler defense were answered on that next Cardinal drive. Warner led the Cardinals on an 83-yard drive, featuring Edgerrin James and Boldin, not Fitzgerald. James handled the ball four times, three of them on passes, and Boldin caught a 45-yard bomb to put the Cardinals at the Pittsburgh 1. Ben Patrick, who nearly killed off the drive three plays earlier by being called for holding, caught a one-yard scoring pass to make it 10-7 Pittsburgh.

After an exchange of punts, what most people figured would have been the turning point of the game happened. An exchange of interceptions seemed to put the Steelers in control of the game at the intermission.

Bryan Robinson deflected a Roethlisberger pass and Karlos Dansby intercepted it at the Steeler 34 right at the two-minute warning. Warner led the Cardinals to the Steeler 2 with 18 seconds to go until halftime. On first and goal, Warner tried to sneak one into Boldin on a slant pattern. But James Harrison, the defensive player of the year, faked a blitz, dropped into coverage and Warner didn't see him. Harrison stepped in front of Boldin and picked off the pass at the goal line, and lumbered 100 yards for the score as time expired in the half. It was 17-7 Steelers, and the Cardinals should have been dead right there. It was one of the more deflating plays in recent Super Bowl memory.

Harrison's return was the longest play in Super Bowl history, breaking the 99-yard kickoff return Desmond Howard pulled off against the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.

Arizona won the coin toss and deferred, so they got the ball to begin the second half. But they drove only 25 yards before punting, and Pittsburgh owned the football for literally the rest of the third quarter. Having stopped the Steelers at the nine-yard line, Reed kicked a 27-yard field goal. But Adrian Wilson got a personal foul for running into the holder, so Pittsburgh had a fresh set of downs at the four. Arizona still managed to hold the Steelers to a chip shot field goal, but it was 20-7 Steelers as the game moved on into the final stanza.

The teams traded punts, then Arizona began what should have been an historic comeback. Resorting to a no-huddle offense and opening up the passing attack, Warner was able to lead Arizona on an 87-yard touchdown drive, finally hooking up with Fitzgerald. He fired four passes of ten yards or more, the longest being a 22-yard quick dump pass to J.J. Arrington which got Arizona to the Pittsburgh 28-yard line. Finally, from the one, Warner tried a fade pass to Fitzgerald, and he out-leaped Ike Taylor and the Cardinals now trailed only 20-14.

The Cardinals pinned the Steelers at their one after the kickoff. Three plays later, Roethlisberger fired a 19-yard pass to Holmes to get them out of danger, but Justin Hartwig was guilty of holding in the end zone, which by rule is a safety. It was the old Andy Cvercko play from 1962, when on that day against Pittsburgh, his holding penalty in the end zone wiped out a 99-yard touchdown pass by Dallas. It was 20-16, but Pittsburgh still held the hammer as Arizona still needed a touchdown to take the lead.

Arizona got that touchdown two plays later after the free kick. Warner hit Fitzgerald on a slant pattern, and he outran Taylor and Harrison to the end zone on an electrifying 64-yard touchdown pass. It was now 23-20 Arizona, but with 2:37 to play and Pittsburgh with two time outs.

Looking at possibly the first overtime game in Super Bowl history, Holmes cemented his game MVP award with the four best catches of his brief career. On first and 20 from his own 13, he got the Steelers out of danger with a 14-yard reception. He would get the first down two plays later with a leaping catch at the Pittsburgh 38.

The play which really decided the game came three plays later. With time winding down and the Steelers on the cusp of Reed's field goal range, Roethlisberger rolled right and hit Holmes in the flat. Defender Aaron Francisco slipped and fell, which allowed Holmes to turn a short curl route into a 40-yard dagger which put the Steelers at the Arizona 6. Two plays later, Holmes made a brilliant catch in the corner of the end zone, keeping all ten toes in bounds to give Pittsburgh a 27-23 lead with 39 seconds left.

Warner had one less timeout than Tom Brady had at this juncture last year. He got all the way to the Steeler 44 before he was strip-sacked by LaMarr Woodley and Brett Keisel fell on the loose ball to end the game.

Warner finished with a rating of 112.3 and Fitzgerald had 7 catches for 127 yards. But Holmes stole the show with nine catches for 131 yards. For the second straight Steeler Super Bowl, it was a wide receiver who was the MVP. In the end, it was the Cardinals who couldn't stop Holmes which trumped the Steelers not being able to stop Fitzgerald, and that is why the Steelers survived to claim the championship.

The Cardinals now get thrown back into the pack with all the other 9-7 teams. But give them credit for coming oh so close to one of the more epic wins you would have ever seen in your lifetime.