TAMPA, Fla. - Just wow them in the end. Like any good screenwriter knows, the final act is the only one that the audience remembers. And the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII was pure theatre, sublime football, an ending that would be rejected from by any studio for its sheer improbability.
Steelers-Cardinals was not a matchup that captured the country's imagination before the game. But that's one the beautiful things about football: you never know when a classic is going to break out. You just have to be there to find out.
Through three plus quarters, Super Bowl XLIII looked like an odd game full of penalties, missed red zone chances, and one incredible 100-yard play by James Harrison. By the end, there were so many brilliant plays piled on top of one another, it was hard to keep them straight.
Here are eight that we'll always remember.
1. Santonio Holmes' game-winning touchdown
62, Scat, Flasher. It doesn't have quite the same ring as the Immaculate reception, but Holmes' play will go down right next to Franco Harris' romp in Pittsburgh lore.
The play wasn't initially designed to get Holmes the ball. Nate Washington and Hines Ward were ahead of Holmes on Roethlisberger's progression.
But Roethlisberger had great protection in the pocket and was able to read the field. This was typical, as Pittsburgh's maligned grunts played well all game. Roethlisberger looked inside quickly, but it appears Roethlisberger had Holmes in mind all along, no matter what coordinator Bruce Arians called for.
Sometimes it's not about the play call. The perfect throw and catch can beat even the best defense, and that was the case here. Three defenders were covering Holmes - safety Aaron Francisco, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and cornerback Ralph Brown. Roethlisberger had about a six-inch window to throw into, and he nailed it on a perfect line over Brown's out-stretched hand. Francisco, the night's Bill Buckner, arrived just in time to push Holmes to the ground.
Holmes is listed at 5-feet-11, but he's at least two inches shorter in person. He used every inch of that frame to stretch out and catch the ball with his fingertips. He won't buy a beer in Pittsburgh for the rest of his life.
Asked about the play after the game, despondent Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson just shook his head and said, "Great catch." He took a deep breath, and we waited for him to say something else. He just kept shaking his head.
Like the David Tyree catch from last Super Bowl, the Holmes grab becomes less probable the more you watch it. That is a throw most coaches would probably say not to make. It had a greater chance of being intercepted than completed. It's the type of throw and catch that creates legends.
2. Holmes' first down to start the game-winning drive
Don't let this play get lost in the shuffle. The Steelers still had 74 yards to go with 1:56 remaining, and were facing a third-and-six. Roethlisberger pump-faked, got safety Aaron Francisco up in the air, ducked under a possible hit, then found Holmes leaping for a first down grab over the middle. Holmes dropped a lot of passes this season while getting hit. This time he held on. If he didn't, the Steelers were looking at one more play to save their season.
3. Larry Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown
Fitzgerald's touchdown, much like Randy Moss' last year, was the storybook ending that wasn't. It was the would-be championship moment that will finish as a footnote.
"It was like getting a chair pulled out from under you," Fitzgerald said. "It just hurts to be able to get so close and fall short of your ultimate goal."
The Steelers double covered Fitzgerald all game, but the Cardinals broke free in the fourth quarter by spreading Pittsburgh out.
"The play itself was another in-breaking, intermediate route, which they were struggling with once we went to it," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.
Right before the play, sage writer Tom Curran said, "They need to get Polamalu out of there."
Troy Polamalu was shaded towards Fitzgerald, but got caught heading towards Steve Breaston on a sideline route while Fitzgerald exploded over the middle. They ran a similar play at least 10 times in the second half, often to other receivers. No one else can bust open a zone like Fitzgerald.
"I was thinking, he was way faster than I thought," safety Ryan Clark said after failing to catch up with Fitzgerald.
4. Cardinals' safety on a holding call
This was an easy call for the official, but a crucial one with only 2:58 left in the game. It wiped out a remarkable throw and catch from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes for a would-be first down. The Cardinals, at the very least, would have wasted more time and had to burn times outs to get the ball back.
There was a healthy press box discussion whether the Steelers should intentionally take a safety while up six points if they got to fourth down. The holding call/safety came on third down, so we'll never know what Mike Tomlin's decision would have been.
5. Fitzgerald's leaping one-yard touchdown
It's easy to forget the game looked like a snoozer until the Cardinals went no huddle in the fourth quarter.
Fitzgerald's touchdown, on third-and-goal from the one, cut the lead to 20-14 with 7:33 remaining. Ike Taylor was in perfect position to break up the jump ball, and got a hand on the ball and Fitzgerald's body. Fitz somehow wrestled the ball away, using his facemask for a moment to cradle the ball. (Another Tyree-like moment.)
It's telling that the Cardinals threw a low-percentage play like that to Fitzgerald rather than running the ball at the one-yard line with the game one the line. With Fitzgerald, the Cardinals have come to expect the unbelievable. Perhaps it wasn't so low-percentage.
6. Harrison's 100-yard return
"That's the MVP being the MVP," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said, talking about Harrison's game-changing play to end the first half.
Despite the crazy ending, this was the play the Cardinals and Steelers talked about the most after the game. It was a 10-point swing at minimum, and ruined the dominant second quarter Arizona played. "It was the difference in the game," Troy Polamalu said.
Harrison wasn't even supposed to be covering Anquan Boldin. "He was actually supposed to be covering the running back, but he read the play. That's what you expect your MVP to do," Clark said.
The Steelers had called a max blitz and Warner just threw the ball too quick.
The Steelers practiced their "transition offense" after interceptions in practice this week. It came in handy, though I doubt Harrison practiced hurdling over teammate LaMarr Woodley at the 30-yard line.
"I was tired as a dog," Harrison said about the end of the run. "I'm not going to lie, it was a quarter tank. But I ended up making it."
Kurt Warner admits he is still haunted every day by the Rams' loss to the Patriots in 2001. This play will cause a lot more sleepless nights. He simply didn't see Harrison, and he certainly didn't think Harrison could return the ball 100 yards for the score.
7. Roethlisberger's scrambling first down to Heath Miller
Third-and-10, first quarter, four minutes and 10 seconds left for the Steelers. Pittsburgh wasn't yet in field goal range. Roethlisberger scrambled to his left, saw two defenders, sprinted right, was hit in the leg, stumbled, spun his whole body, and then rifled an 11-yard strike to Miller.
That is Roethlisberger in a nutshell: improvisational, impossible-to-take-down, making a play where none seem available. You can't coach that.
If it wasn't for that play, the Steelers are punting. They went on to score their only offensive touchdown in the first half later in the drive.
8. Darnell Dockett's goal-line stuff of Roethlisberger
At 241 pounds, Ben Roethlisberger is built for more like a bruising goal-line anvil than an average quarterback. He tried to use all his poundage on a third-and-goal from the one on Pittsburgh's first drive. After rolling out on a bootleg, Roethlisberger decided to keep the ball and took on Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. The two collided at the three-yard line, and Roethlisberger appeared to carry Dockett into the end zone.
This play set up a few themes in the game. Ken Whisenhunt challenged and overturned a touchdown, one of two huge challenges wins for the Whis. (He also overturned a Kurt Warner interception in the third quarter.) The Steelers came away with only a field goal because of short-yardage struggles. That would also happen again in the third quarter. The Cardinals holding the fort in the red zone kept them in the game, so they could make their fourth quarter comeback attempt.
- Gregg Rosenthal, NBCSports.com