TAMPA, Fla. - The Arizona Cardinals were proud of themselves.
Proud of the way they came back from a 13-point deficit to take a short-lived lead. Proud of the way they held together as a team and almost won Super Bowl XLIII.
You could feel for these men who played so badly for so long, made so many mistakes and overcame them all only to see a better team stage a bigger drive and score a bigger touchdown. They were the underdog's underdog from the sorriest franchise that ever played the game, and on one unseasonably chilly night in Tampa, they almost erased 61 years of ineptitude.
And that was the problem. When the clock ran out on the Cardinals' season, the sum of Arizona's mistakes outweighed its accomplishments. Yes, the Cards almost beat the mighty Steelers. But they didn't. The reason they lost was more what they didn't do when it mattered than what Big Ben Roethlisberger did.
The game was there for the taking. But when in the game's biggest moments, the Cardinals blew it.
There really isn't a nice way to put it. After averaging about 48 penalty yards a game during three playoff wins, Arizona racked up 106 yards in penalties against Pittsburgh - an appalling total that showed a lack of discipline and execution. They had just one turnover until the game's final seconds, but it was a killer. When all they had to do was stop the Steelers to win the game, they blew a coverage, a defender slipped, and Santonio Holmes galloped 40 yards to put the Steelers five yards away from their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Yes, Roethlisberger and MVP Holmes and the Steelers defense made big plays. But they really, really tried to give the game away in the fourth quarter.
And when the Cardinals had it all in their grasp, they gave it away.
They had just one possession and one first down in the first quarter. In the second, after scoring a touchdown to make it 10-7, they drove to the Steelers' 1-yard line just before the half. Kurt Warner misread the Steelers' defense and threw the ball to Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison. One hundred yards and who knows how many broken tackles later, the clock had expired and Harrison was being tackled in the Arizona end zone for a touchdown.
Instead of leading 14-10, the Cardinals went into the locker room on the short end of a 17-7 score.
Except for that one interception, Warner had a pretty good game, and a great second half. But that's like saying except for that annoying John Wilkes Booth, Mary Todd Lincoln really enjoyed watching "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater.
Warner is one of the game's good guys, and he had a great season after being written off by everyone but the Cardinals and himself.
"I'm so proud to be a part of this football team," he said afterward when the wounds were still fresh. "I think that is one of the reasons why it doesn't hurt as bad as it could."
You had to wonder how much worse a defeat could hurt, because most people would be leveled by the agony of this one.
Warner tried to explain: "These guys have exceeded expectations. I am proud. We gave ourselves a chance to win a world championship, but the other team went out and won it."
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It's hard to criticize Warner after everything he did this season. On the other hand, it's hard to hear your team's leader make almost winning sound like actually winning because nobody expected the team to almost win.
He drove his team to the go-ahead score, his efforts made considerably easier by receiver Larry Fitzgerald's catch-and-run for a 64-yard touchdown that made Cardinals fans almost ecstatic. Even that turned out to be a mistake because it came too early. The 2:47 remaining was more than enough time for Big Ben and the Steelers to take apart a suddenly passive Cardinals defense.
But you can't blame players for making big plays. You can only hope that your defense will step up. That, in fact, was what Warner was doing on the sideline when the Steelers offense took the field and decided to become competent again.
"I was just hoping they'd make a mistake," Warner said, admitting to what sounded like an uncharitable thought.
A mistake was made - but it was by Arizona cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The Steelers had picked on him all night and profited greatly from that strategy. On what would be the game's biggest play, he slipped trying to cover Holmes during a Roethlisberger scramble. The result was the 40-yard pass that set up the winning score. That was also caught by Holmes against Cromartie's attempted coverage.
"You have to give it to them," Cromartie said. "Their game plan worked. They got me early on with a lot of short routes."
Not to worry, Arizona fans. Though defeated, the team believes in itself and the players talked about how much they love each other and their town and how they expect to be back next year.
They have to say that, but next year is never guaranteed in sports. In 1996, after winning their third Super Bowl in just a few years, the Cowboys thought they'd be back again soon. They haven't won a playoff game since. The Steelers themselves won their fourth Super Bowl in 1980 and didn't win their fifth until 25 years later.
When it was done, a lot of people were saying that it was one of the greatest Super Bowls ever for the simple reason that it was. But Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt wasn't drinking that Kool Aid. He had watched the game, seen what happened, and the defeat was sticking in his craw like a chicken bone the size of a dinosaur femur. So when someone asked him if it was one of the best, he didn't show a flicker of satisfaction.
"It wasn't one of the best games ever to me," he said.
- Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com