TAMPA, Fla. — Their Steel Curtain shredded, Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense ended a Super Bowl of incredible swings with a final-minute touchdown for a historic victory.
Santonio Holmes made a brilliant 6-yard catch deep in the right corner of the end zone with 35 seconds remaining Sunday night, lifting the Steelers to a record-setting sixth Super Bowl win, 27-23 over the Arizona Cardinals.
“Scramble right, scramble left, find someone open,” Roethlisberger said.
It was one of the most thrilling finishes to the NFL title game, certainly equaling last year’s upset by the New York Giants that ended with Plaxico Burress’ TD catch — with 35 seconds left, too.
But this one was even wilder.
The Steelers (15-4), winning their second Super Bowl in four seasons, led 20-7 in the fourth quarter, only to see Kurt Warner and the Cardinals stage a remarkable rally to go in front 23-20 with 2:37 remaining.
Warner hit All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald in stride for a 64-yard touchdown with 2:37 left. Already owning a slew of postseason receiving marks this year, Fitzgerald sped down the middle of the field, watching himself outrun the Steelers on the huge video screen.
Fitzgerald could only watch from the sideline as Roethlisberger engineered a 78-yard drive to win it in what resembled Heinz Field South. With waves of twirling Terrible Towels turning Raymond James Stadium into a black-and-gold tableau — Steelers fans supporting their beloved team, the economy be damned — Pittsburgh’s offense rescued the title.
Holmes was selected the game’s MVP.
“Great players step up in big-time games to make plays,” Holmes said. “I kind of lost a little composure, you know, but I knew our defense would give us a chance to make it back.”
The stunning swings overshadowed Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison’s record 100-yard interception return for a touchdown to end the first half. That looked like the signature play until the final quarter, when both teams shook off apparent knockout punches to throw haymakers of their own.
Big Ben and Holmes struck the last blow, and when Warner fumbled in the final seconds, the Cardinals’ dream of winning their first NFL crown since 1947 were gone.
“I said it’s now or never, I told the guys all the film study you put in doesn’t matter unless you do it now,” Roethlisberger said. “I’m really proud of the way they responded.”
The Cardinals (12-8), playing in their first Super Bowl and first championship game of any kind since 1948, lost their composure after Harrison’s heroics. They had three penalties to keep Pittsburgh’s 79-yard drive going, a 16-play march that ended with Jeff Reed’s 21-yard field goal for a 20-7 lead.
And they couldn’t get Fitzgerald free until very late. But boy did he get free.
The All-Pro who already had set a postseason record for yards receiving and had five touchdowns in the playoffs was a nonentity until an 87-yard fourth-quarter drive he capped with a leaping 1-yard catch over Ike Taylor. He made four receptions on that series on which Warner hit all eight passes for all the yards.
And then he struck swiftly for the 64-yarder that put Arizona within minutes of a remarkable victory.
A victory that didn’t happen because the Steelers are as resilient as they come.
“I’m disappointed for our team,” said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh when the Steelers won the 2005 title. “This is a group of men that I’m very proud of. They played very hard in circumstances where nobody believed in them.
“We learned a lot about our team, it’s just unfortunate it had to come out that way.”
Pittsburgh looked like the offensive juggernaut to open the game, smoothly driving 71 yards in eight plays. But the 72nd yard that would have given the Steelers a touchdown never came.
It seemingly had when Roethlisberger’s short run was ruled a TD. Whisenhunt challenged, and the score was overturned, leaving Tomlin his first difficult decision.
He took the points, Reed’s 18-yard field goal, the shortest in a Super Bowl since 1976.
After forcing a punt, the Steelers kept the ball the remainder of the first quarter — 11:28 in all, outgaining Arizona 140-13, getting seven first downs to one for the Cardinals. As Warner and the usually potent Cardinals’ offense watched, frustrated, from the sideline, Pittsburgh plowed it in on Gary Russell’s 1-yard run to make it 10-0.
When Arizona finally got the ball back, it suddenly put the Steelers off-balance with short passes — and one huge play.
Warner had enough time to shine the NFL Man of the Year trophy he received just before kickoff, then hit Anquan Boldin streaking from left to right. He was upended at the Pittsburgh 1, and Warner’s lob to Ben Patrick got Arizona on the board. It was the tight end’s first touchdown this season.
Arizona’s defense then emulated the Steel Curtain with a big play. Bryan Robinson tipped Roethlisberger’s pass high into the air and Karlos Dansby corralled it at the Pittsburgh 34. The Cardinals got to the 1, then, perhaps jealous, the Steelers’ D asserted itself — magnificently.
Harrison, the defensive player of the year, stepped in front of Boldin at the goal line, picked off Warner’s throw and began a journey down the right sideline to the longest play in Super Bowl history.
Harrison ran past or through most of the Cardinals, nearly stepped out of bounds at one point, and was dragged down by Fitzgerald as he fell to the goal line. The play was reviewed as several Cardinals knelt on one knee, exhausted from the chase and disheartened by the result.
“I didn’t see him around my offensive line,” Warner said. “He made a great play and a great run to get them a touchdown.”
The previous longest play was Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for Green Bay in 1997.