TAMPA, Fla. - By the time fireworks exploded over the Super Bowl as the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrated making history, James Harrison and his meandering rumble to the end zone seemed but a distant memory. In his place were new heroes, one replacing another until Ben Roethlisberger fired one toward the corner and Santonio Holmes made the tiptoe catch of his life.
Larry Fitzgerald easily could have been the star of this game, and Kurt Warner just as easily could have been fitted for his second Super Bowl ring. The Arizona Cardinals gave everyone everything they had until their improbable run finally came crashing down in the final seconds of a masterpiece of a game.
This was supposed to be over at halftime, with the Cardinals demoralized and morose in their locker room even as the Boss sang of glory days outside. And for the third quarter and part of the fourth it seemed like that was the case, until Arizona finally shook off its malaise and the two teams engaged in a mad dash to the finish that will live in Super Bowl lore.
They slugged it out like two heavyweights in their prime in the final minutes, the upstart team from the desert against the proud franchise trying to win the most Super Bowls ever. One team was trying to fulfill a destiny and erase 61 years of futility, while the other was determined to make its mark for a proud owner as the first to ever win six Super Bowl titles.
"Six championships, man. That speaks volumes in itself," Steelers receiver Hines Ward said. "You hear about the Dallas Cowboys being America's team, but wherever we go n it's Pittsburgh. This is for all of Steelers nation."
Their fans were more than happy to accept, and many did so in person. They waved yellow Terrible Towels throughout the stadium and so outnumbered the small contingent of Arizona fans that the Steelers might as well have been playing in Pittsburgh.
There were story lines everywhere, from Harrison's interception for a touchdown to Fitzgerald's dash down the middle for the score that put Arizona ahead late. There were two quarterbacks who had done this before, two coaches whose paths intersected and two aging owners who wanted to win for different reasons.
But in the end, as it so often does, it came down to two guys playing pitch-and-catch.
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In the huddle on the final drive, with his team trailing for the first time all night, Roethlisberger told his teammates that it was now or never. Holmes coolly responded by telling his quarterback he wanted the ball.
"Great players step up in big-time games to make plays," Holmes said.
With 48 seconds left, Holmes had a chance to make that play but Roethlisberger's pass to him in the left corner of the end zone went through his fingers. Undeterred, Roethlisberger called his number again, this time in right corner, and Holmes caught a perfect pass perfectly, his toes dragging just in bounds long enough to make it count.
"We embrace those moments," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We believe we're built for those moments."
Tomlin became the youngest coach to ever win a Super Bowl and only the second black coach to win one, though it hardly seemed to matter. Those kind of milestones can be debated during the season and over the years, but on this night it was all about two teams playing what turned out to be one incredible game.
That the Cardinals did their part to make it one should take some of the sting out of losing their first Super Bowl. Lesser teams might have simply accepted this was not going to be their night after the shocking interception run by Harrison turned what looked like it was going to be a 14-10 halftime lead for Arizona into a 17-7 deficit.
Even worse for the Cardinals is they had to live with the play during one of the longest halftimes ever, sitting in their locker room as Bruce Springsteen rocked the crowd and the Steeler faithful rocked along with him. But after a lethargic third quarter they came back to make it a thriller and keep televisions turned on in millions of homes around the world.
In the end, it wasn't quite enough. Roethlisberger and Holmes helped make sure of that, and the Steelers blue collar defense wasn't about to allow a last-gasp shot into the end zone by Warner.
Just as well, probably, because this Super Bowl already had enough memorable moments to last a season.