Super Bowl Sunday: Steelers prevail in Super thriller

Updated: February 2, 2009

Fernando Medina/US Presswire

The Super Bowl MVP? Steelers WR Santonio Holmes, whose 6-yard TD catch in the final minute gave Pittsburgh a scintillating 27-23 victory. Holmes finished with nine catches for 131 yards. Zoom Gallery

Super Bowl XLIII analysis

TAMPA, Fla. -- Super Bowl XLIII featured -- in my opinion -- the greatest play in Super Bowl history, but it also might have been the greatest game.

The Steelers' 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals had it all. James Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown on the last play of the first half was the greatest play in 43 Super Bowls because it caused a 14-point swing at a critical point in the game. Had the Cardinals scored a TD from the Steelers' 1-yard line, they would have led 14-10. Instead, Harrison's amazing return gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead.

This game answered a lot of questions.

1. Offense rules: It's official. We now know for sure that the NFL is in the midst of an offensive era. They say defense wins championships, but the Colts and Giants won the previous two Super Bowls despite defenses that didn't rank among the top 10 in points allowed. Even though the Steelers boast the No. 1-ranked defense, they needed a 78-yard touchdown drive from Ben Roethlisberger in the final 2:37 to beat the Cardinals.

Kurt Warner passed for 377 yards and three touchdowns against a Steelers defense that didn't surrender 300 yards of total offense in 17 of Pittsburgh's previous 18 games. In 2008, the NFL scoring average of more than 44 points a game was the highest since 1965.

Ben Roethlisberger

Matthew Emmons/US Presswire

Now a two-time Super Bowl champion, Ben Roethlisberger appears to be on a fast track to Canton, Ohio.

2. Hall of Fame cases: One of the biggest questions leading up to Super Bowl XLIII was whether Warner has done enough to draw Hall of Fame votes after his retirement. Well, Super Bowl XLIII may end up producing two potential Hall of Famers. Warner clinched all arguments that he is one of the greatest big-game quarterbacks in Super Bowl history. He's thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his three Super Bowls. In four postseason games in 2008, Warner passed for 1,147 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Roethlisberger also is knocking on the door of immortality. At 26, he has two Super Bowl rings and eight postseason victories. Only Tom Brady tops him for playoff victories during the first five years of a career. The scary part is that Big Ben has yet to hit his prime.

3. Play for the ages: Harrison's 100-yard interception return turned the game like no other play in the 43-year history of this game. David Tyree's great catch in Super Bowl XLII enabled the Giants to upset the Patriots, but Harrison's interception turned a sure scoring opportunity for the Cardinals into seven key points for the Steelers. The Steelers blitzed seven defenders on the play, and Harrison positioned himself perfectly and picked off Warner. With the clock expiring at the half, Harrison had to lunge over two potential tacklers to get the touchdown.

4. Late bloomer: Larry Fitzgerald is the most unstoppable wide receiver since Jerry Rice. In the first half, the Steelers -- mainly cornerback Ike Taylor -- held Fitzgerald to only one catch for 12 yards. Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley changed his strategy at halftime by letting Fitzgerald run more intermediate routes in the middle of the field. The change worked wonders, as Fitzgerald caught six passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.

5. Beating the blitz: The only other quarterback on the same planet as Brady and Peyton Manning against the blitz is Warner. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called a great game to contain Warner in the first half (135 passing yards). For most of the first half, LeBeau rushed only four on most passing plays, letting seven defenders drop into coverage. In the second half, LeBeau used more five-man rushes, and Warner threw for 222 yards against the league's top pass defense in 2008. Warner's the league's ultimate blitz-buster.

6. Hold that thought: Super Bowl XLIII had an inordinate amount of holding penalties. Terry McAulay's all-star crew called seven holding penalties, including four against the Cardinals. To put that in perspective, officials called 1.695 holding penalties a game in 2008 -- for both teams combined. Cardinals left tackle Mike Gandy had the worst day with three holding penalties.

7. Holmes coming of age: In 2008, Roddy White and Brandon Marshall emerged as star receivers; the Steelers' Santonio Holmes will be next year's star. Holmes matured into one of the league's big-play receivers during the playoffs, but his Super Bowl MVP performance put him on track for stardom.

8. No time to rest: Even though the Steelers won their second Super Bowl in four years, they have a lot of work to do in the offseason. They have to get better along the offensive line. Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett dominated right guard Darnell Stapleton. Expect the Steelers to draft blockers in high rounds over the next two years.

9. Nip tuck rule in the bud: The NFL needs to junk the "tuck rule." In the third quarter, Warner appeared to be sacked by James Farrior as the Cardinals QB was throwing the ball. Officials on the field ruled the play a fumble, but Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt challenged -- and upon review, it was overturned and called an incomplete pass. The "tuck rule" mandates that the ball has to come to the passer's belt buckle before coming out in order for it to be ruled a fumble. How can that happen when Warner is falling as he was hit with the ball held high in the air? If it looks like a fumble, it should be a fumble.

10. Warner unsure about future: After the game, we learned Warner took the loss hard and he isn't sure what he wants to do with his future. That has to be scary for the Cardinals. "I don't know," the unsigned Warner said of his future. "There are a lot of emotions that go into a decision like that. I don't want to make any emotional decisions." At training camp before this season, Warner said he wanted to play two more years. The Cardinals better convince him to stay. He's too good to lose.


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John Clayton's game balls


• Offense: In a game that featured Kurt Warner's 377-yard passing performance and Larry Fitzgerald's seven-catch, 127-yard showing, Santonio Holmes was the star with nine receptions for 131 yards, including the game-winning 6-yard touchdown grab. "I stepped in the huddle with Ben [Roethlisberger] and told him I wanted to be the guy to make plays for the team,'' Holmes said. Holmes caught three passes for 59 yards on the Steelers' game-clinching, 78-yard drive late in the fourth quarter.


• Defense: James Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a TD before halftime will probably be viewed as the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Minutes before Bruce Springsteen played "Born To Run,'' the linebacker who wasn't fast enough to be drafted and was cut a total of four times by two teams intercepted a Kurt Warner pass at the goal line. Because the clock was expiring, Harrison had to score, and he did. "It was very tiring but it all worth it,'' he said. "I was just thinking I had to do whatever I could to get to the other end zone and get seven.'' Instead of trailing 14-10 at the half, the Steelers led 17-7 thanks to Harrison.

• Special teams: The Steelers' Mitch Berger edged out teammate Jeff Reed. Reed had short field goals of 18 and 21 yards, but Berger averaged 46.3 yards on his three punts and had a good free kick after a fourth-quarter safety.

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Super Bowl grades

Pittsburgh Steelers

Offense: B
The offense started fast with 10 points on its first two possessions. From there, the unit didn't give the team much until the final drive, but the last touchdown was important.

Defense: B
The defense scored six points and held Arizona's high-powered offense to 21. The 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker James Harrison was the longest play in Super Bowl history.

Special teams: B
The Steelers gave up one big punt return in the first half that didn't hurt them. Kicker Jeff Reed was perfect on field goals (2-for-2) and extra points (3-for-3).

Coaching: A-
The Steelers stayed one step ahead of Arizona on both sides of the football for three quarters. The Cardinals got hot toward the end, but the coaching staff kept Pittsburgh's players poised to pull out the late win.

-- James Walker

Arizona Cardinals

Offense: B
Known more for glitz than guts, the Cardinals' offense showed both as needed, a tremendous achievement given the matchup advantages Pittsburgh's defensive ends enjoyed in this game. Arizona dusted off its four-receiver offense to great effect, and the protection held up in a couple of critical situations.

Defense: C+
An inspired effort from Darnell Dockett and others helped cover for some of the Cardinals' defensive flaws. The Cardinals had no answer for Heath Miller early in the game, but he didn't hurt them as much later. This was nearly a defining game for the Cardinals' defense, but Arizona could not hold up in the end. Santonio Holmes shredded the Cardinals' pass defense for 131 yards.

Special teams: B
Arizona suffered a personal foul penalty on a field goal try and mental errors in the return game. The Cardinals' coverage units held up better than expected. Lots of extra credit for downing a punt at the 1-yard line to set up a safety and turn the game's momentum.

Coaching: B
Ken Whisenhunt's successful challenges helped keep the game from getting away from Arizona. The Cardinals also found ways to get Larry Fitzgerald open when it mattered. Arizona never did find the right adjustments in defending Holmes. Whether that was coaching -- or personnel-related issues -- wasn't immediately clear.

-- Mike Sando