TAMPA, Fla. – When the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl three years ago, the franchise dubbed it “one for the thumb.”
Sunday night’s 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII was one for the ages.
“If I could win any way, it would be like that,” said winning coach Mike Tomlin, 36, the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. “Steeler football is for 60 minutes. It’s never going to be pretty.”
History will remember this Super Bowl as a beauty.
Santonio Holmes’ 6-yard touchdown catch with 35 seconds remaining capped a furious fourth quarter that included two lead changes and three TDs and a safety in the final 7 minutes, 41 seconds.
On the game-winning play, Ben Roethlisberger bought time by shuffling to his right and fired a pass over three defenders to the only spot in the right corner Holmes could catch it. A fully extended Holmes kept both feet on the ground as he reached as far as he could to pull in the catch that instantly went into the Super Bowl time capsule.
It was Holmes’ fourth catch on the game-winning eight-play, 78-yard drive, a series that started with the wide receiver making a request of his quarterback in the huddle.
“I said to (Roethlisberger) that I wanted to be the guy to make the play for this team,” said Holmes, named the game’s most valuable player.
Holmes was put in the position to play hero only after his wide receiver counterpart, Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals, made a rescue necessary.
Arizona created Fitzgerald’s opportunity to win the game by forcing a safety with 2:58 left. A holding call on center Justin Hardwig in the end zone for tackling a blitzing Chike Okeafor made it 20-16 and got the ball back for Kurt Warner.
On the Cardinals’ second play from the 36-yard line, Warner took advantage of the respect the Steelers defense was giving Fitzgerald. Before the snap, safety Troy Polamalu lined up 24 yards deep and was in no position to break up the quick slant to Fitzgerald.
Cornerback Ike Taylor had jammed Fitzgerald before releasing the receiver to safeties, whose depth made it impossible to make a play. The resulting 64-yard TD gave the Cardinals a 23-20 lead and set up a happy ending so much of America had sought for Warner.
But the Steelers edited the script with a scene less sentimental but more dramatic.
“We’re going down in history with one of the greatest games ever played in the Super Bowl,” said Holmes, who caught nine passes for 131 yards and a touchdown.
It gave the Steelers franchise its sixth Super Bowl championship, more than any other team. To many the victory will validate the Rooney family’s surprising choice of Tomlin to replace Bill Cowher in 2007 over in-house candidate Russ Grimm.
Warner nearly ruined the night for owner Dan Rooney and all of Pittsburgh. He became the first quarterback in Super Bowl history to have three 300-yard passing games by going 31 of 43 for 377 yards and three TDs.
Taking what the Steelers gave him for the first three quarters, Warner stayed away from the deep passing game that defines the Cardinals. The no-huddle offense that had been good to Warner didn’t appear until the Cardinals trailed 20-7 with 11 minutes left in the game. Then Warner got hot.
He completed all eight of his passes on an 87-yard drive that pulled the Cardinals within 20-14. Then after the safety, Warner hit Fitzgerald in stride for the 64-yard TD that stopped the “Terrible Towels” in the partisan Pittsburgh crowd of 70,774 from waving.
“My whole goal was to make good decisions and I was just going to be patient this game,” Warner said. “The unfortunate thing is we made too many mistakes.”
The most pivotal one came from Warner himself.
Down 10-7, Arizona faced first-and-goal at the 1 with 18 seconds left in the first half and lined up with wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Fitzgerald flanked to the left. Steelers linebacker James Harrison, lined up outside left tackle Mike Gandy, faked as if he were rushing the passer before floating to the spot he anticipated Warner would throw. Warner never saw Harrison and threw it right into his hands.
Then the player who nearly quit to become a bus driver after getting cut four times weaved his way 100 yards through Arizona traffic and into the Super Bowl record books. He ran through Warner’s tackle attempt, made a nifty cut and raced down the Cardinals sideline untouched until Gandy unsuccessfully tried knocking him out of bounds at the 10. Fitzgerald attempted to strip the ball at the end zone with the help of Steve Breaston but Harrison prevailed, tumbling over the goal line to make it 17-7.
As Harrison lay flat on his back Sunday night after returning an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, Tomlin raced across the field to check on his man of steel.
Super man indeed.
“I would say it was the greatest play in Super Bowl history,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, 71, said. “We don’t win without (that) play.”
When Harrison finally got up after several anxious moments, Tomlin gave him a long embrace.
“I can stay on an even keel but I got a little emotional then,” Tomlin recalled of seeing Harrison on his back.
An even bigger rush of emotion would hit Tomlin later as he clutched the Lombardi Trophy after a game that once again exceeded its hype.
“Some said that we could not top last year’s Super Bowl,” commissioner Roger Goodell said. “But the Cardinals and Steelers did that tonight.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.