TAMPA // In the end, Super Bowl XLIII was decided by a wide receiver, just not the one every one expected as Pittsburgh's Santonio Holmes won the game for the Steelers with a wonderful touchdown catch with just 35 seconds left. For the past week the bulk of the discussion about the game between the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals focused on the ability of the league's best defence to stop Larry Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald had been the firepower behind the Cardinals' improbable advancement from a 9-7 regular season record to a stunning three-game play-off run to the Super Bowl, catching 23 passes for 419 yards and five touchdowns in the process. No 9-7 team had ever reached the Super Bowl and the Cardinals arrival was solely based on their abundant passing game, which was led by Fitzgerald and quarterback Kurt Warner, a two-time league Most Valuable Player and a former Super Bowl MVP as well.
Their defence was middle-of-the-road and their running game was last in the NFL, so if they were going to upset the mighty Steelers it seemed likely Fitzgerald would have to be the one to do it. And he nearly did. After being shadowed all game by two or more defenders, Fitzgerald finally broke free in the fourth quarter, scoring twice to help erase a 20-7 third quarter lead. The latter of those was a 64-yard catch and run on one of the few plays when he was left one-on-one with the Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. Fitzgerald blew by him and then flew between two stunned Steelers safeties to give the Cardinals their only lead of the night, 23-20, with only 2:37 remaining. At that point the Cardinals had overcome a second-half deficit, over 100 yards in penalties and a Super Bowl record 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by the Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison as time was expiring in the first half.
Harrison lured Warner into making a throw at the goalline by faking a pass rush and then dropping unseen into one of Warner's throwing lanes and plucking the ball out of the air. Instead of the Cardinals holding a 14-10 half-time lead, it was the Steelers on top, 17-7, after Harrison sprinted through half the Arizona team and returned the ball the length of the field, bulling his way into the end zone with Fitzgerald and fellow receiver Steve Breaston on his back.
"That turnover right before the half hurt," the downcast Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt admitted. "That was seven points that we gave them and we were going to get points but I think we fought back and overcame that." What they could not overcome was the Steelers receiver Holmes, who would answer Fitzgerald's final score with a diving catch in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds to play that made the Steelers a 27-23 victor.
Pittsburgh drove 78 yards in eight plays with Holmes making a 40-yard catch and run with 48 seconds to play that put the ball on the six-yard line two plays before his final heroics. Two plays later he beat three Cardinal defensive backs and stretched out to grab a Ben Roethlisberger pass as he was falling while managing to keep the required two feet in the end zone. Those two catches gave Holmes nine for 131 yards and the game-winning score, numbers that trumped Fitzgerald's seven receptions for 127 and two touchdowns and led to his being named the game's MVP.
"I told Ben I wanted to be the guy," Holmes said. "I wanted to win this game for our guys. I knew it was a touchdown 100 per cent. My feet never left the ground. All I did was stand up on my toes and extend my hands. "I knew my toes were on the ground the whole time. Once I extended my arms and my body everything just flowed right together. I never left the ground." Not until the catch was made. Then he was floating on cloud nine along with the rest of his teammates. As they screamed and leapt on the sidelines after the Steelers defence pressured Warner into a final fumble as he tried to make a last-gasp pass to keep his team's hopes alive, the beaten Cardinals walked with heads down to the bench, their Cinderella season having come up four points short.
"It's tough in a game like this," Warner said after having completed 31 of 43 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns to up his 2008 play-off totals to a record 1,477 passing yards and 11 touchdown passes, which tied the play-off record set by Joe Montana on 1989. "Your emotions are so high with two minutes left when you have the lead. You know you're two minutes from being the world champions. Then they come down and make a big play to win the game and the emotions flip.
"We got the fortunes to change and gave ourselves a chance. I have to give credit to the Steelers and their tremendous drive at the end. That is what championship teams are all about." So is defence and although the Steelers were not as dominating as normal they shut down Arizona's running game, limiting it to 33 yards, and forced two turnovers, the first Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown and the last Warner's game-ending fumble as he tried to pass under heavy pressure with five seconds left to play.
"We've got a team that doesn't blink in the face of adversity," the Steelers' head coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's never going to be pretty or perfect but they've got a great deal of resolve and it was put on display. Our defence gets a lot of recognition and rightfully so but what you saw from our quarterback and our offence at the end of that football game is what they've provided all year for us. When we've needed it the most, they've done it and done it big."
They couldn't have done it any bigger, or any more dramatically, than they did it after giving up the lead and then snatching it back from the jaws of defeat with only seconds left on the clock. It was the stuff of legends, the kind of game that will be remembered long after even its brightest star, the wide receiver everyone forgot named Santonio Holmes, has faded. "It's just great the way we did it," the Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "I don't know any work profession that you would get the all-time high and the all-time low in less than three minutes. To be part of that is a special feeling."