Sunday, February 1, 2009

One for the Ages and a Sixth for the Trophy Case: Pittsburgh Outlasts Arizona in a Classic Super Bowl

In one of the most dramatic Super Bowls ever, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27-23, claiming their second title in four years and sixth Super Bowl win overall, breaking the record that the franchise shared with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers. Santonio Holmes caught the game winning touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger with just :35 remaining, balletically tapping both of his feet inbounds while reaching full extension to snare the ball as it sailed just over the outreached hands of three defensive players. Just moments earlier, it seemed as though the Cardinals had the game won after Kurt Warner completed a 64 yard touchdown bomb to Larry Fitzgerald. Warner finished with 31 completions in 43 attempts for 377 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, compiling the second most yards in Super Bowl history; he now owns the top three single game yardage performances in Super Bowl history but is only 1-2 in those contests, with those two defeats coming in the final seconds by a combined seven points.

Roethlisberger completed 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards, one touchdown and one interception. He only had two yards on four rushing attempts but his ability to move around in the pocket and buy time proved to be critical throughout the game, particularly on the game-winning drive. Holmes led both teams with nine receptions for 131 yards and was awarded the Super Bowl MVP but ESPN's Steve Young insisted that Roethlisberger should have won the MVP, declaring, "The Steelers are beat--dead beat--unless Ben Roethlisberger makes about seven or eight improvisational plays at the end of that game on that critical drive and he was the MVP in my mind because of what he did right there. It was like what Dr. Seuss said--he grew three sizes right in front of my eyes...He made play after play after play and without that they are beat." Holmes made some huge plays but I have to agree with Young, who I consider to be the best football analyst on TV; if Roethlisberger does not scramble around, elude the pass rush and then make some tremendous throws, Holmes would have never even had the opportunity to make those plays. The Steelers franchise is justifiably renowned for their punishing running game and hard hitting defense, so it is somewhat ironic that three of their six Super Bowl MVPs have been wide receivers (Lynn Swann and Hines Ward are the other two).

The Cardinals got off to a very slow start and were fortunate to only be trailing 10-0 early in the second quarter; the Steelers seemed to have scored a touchdown on a short run by Roethlisberger to cap off the opening drive of the game but the Cardinals challenged the call and the officials ruled that Roethlisberger had been stopped just shy of the goal line. Pittsburgh Coach Mike Tomlin elected to kick the chip shot field goal instead of going for it on fourth and one, a conservative call but certainly an understandable choice. The Cardinals only managed one first down on their first possession before having to punt the ball and this time the Steelers drove 69 yards for a touchdown. Warner finally got Arizona on the board by engineering a nine play, 83 yard touchdown drive to cut the lead to 10-7. After Roethlisberger threw an interception deep in his own territory late in the first half, the Cardinals were poised to at least tie the game and possibly take the lead. Instead, on first and goal from the one yard line Warner was intercepted by Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison. Holmes' late TD catch will forever be remembered as the signature moment of this game but the biggest play overall was undoubtedly Harrison's 100 yard interception return for a touchdown as time expired in the first half; that was a 14 point swing in a game that was not decided until the final seconds. With all of the talk about what constitutes a Hall of Fame career, that play is a tribute to why Pittsburgh assistant coach Dick LeBeau should be inducted: LeBeau designed the zone blitz that the Steelers have perfected and it was a classic zone blitz call that fooled Warner, as Harrison faked like he was going to rush the passer before dropping back into coverage.

The Cardinals did not score in the third quarter but held the Steelers to three points, meaning that Arizona would need to make the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history to win the game. After the teams traded punts, the Cardinals went to a no huddle offense for the first time in the game and put together an eight play, 87 yard touchdown drive in just 3:57, passing on every down, including a one yard jump ball to Fitzgerald for the score. The teams again traded punts but the Cardinals were able to pin the Steelers in at the one yard line, which led to a safety after the Steelers were called for a holding penalty in the end zone, making the score 20-16 Pittsburgh.

After the free kick, Arizona took over at the 36 yard line. Warner threw an incomplete pass on first down but on second down he hit Fitzgerald on a short slant over the middle and, much like Jerry Rice used to do, Fitzgerald outran everyone to the endzone. The Steelers held Fitzgerald in check for most of the game but he finished with seven receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns. The Cardinals now led 23-20 with just 2:37 remaining. That set up the heroics by Roethlisberger and Holmes, who had four receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown on the final drive.

Prior to this game there was talk about how a victory could put the final touches on Warner's Hall of Fame resume, although I think that the two regular season MVPs, one Super Bowl MVP and top five career passer rating that Warner already had make a pretty compelling case on his behalf; Warner certainly played well--though the big first half interception was costly--and he put together what could have been the game-winning drive but--as Young stated so strongly--Roethlisberger is really the player who added to his legacy. Roethlisberger is now the second youngest quarterback to win two Super Bowls and, considering that he has a young coach and a strong defense, it is entirely possible that he could match Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana's record of four Super Bowl victories.

No comments: