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'Game for the ages'
Super Bowl XLIII another instant classic

TAMPA, Fla. - Ben Roethlisberger looked one way, then another. Finally, he somehow spotted Santonio Holmes in the right corner of the end zone, obscured by three defenders.

Big Ben threw it up. Holmes stretched his hands as high as he could get them, but mindful of keeping both feet on the ground.

The ball stuck to Holmes' hands as though they were coated in glue. The tips of his outstretched toes brushed along the edge of the mowed-just-high-enough turf. If the blade had been set any lower, he would've been in trouble.

The official threw up his hands.

Touchdown, Steelers!

Another Super Bowl classic. Or, as commissioner Roger Goodell put it at Monday morning's news conference: 'A game for the ages.'

In what is becoming the norm for America's unofficial national holiday, Pittsburgh and the Arizona Cardinals played a title game for the ages Sunday night. The fourth quarter alone was worth the $3 million NBC charged for every half minute of ad time.

First, it looked as though Arizona had pulled off the greatest comeback win in Super Bowl history. Then, the Steelers drove down the field in the final 21/2 minutes, capping off their 27-23 victory with Roethlisberger's masterful improv of a play and Holmes' spectacular catch for a 6-yard touchdown with 35 seconds remaining.

Holmes sat on the ground for a few seconds - legs outstretched, head bowed, arms wrapped tightly around a ball he didn't want to relinquish - as his teammates piled on to celebrate. On the winning drive, he had four catches that accounted for all but five of the 78 yards covered by the Steelers.

'Before that drive, I told him, 'Ben, I want the ball in my hands no matter what, no matter where it is,' said Holmes, who was named MVP in a game filled with plenty of candidates after finishing with nine receptions for 131 yards. 'I wanted to be the one to make the play.'

Holmes reflected on that moment Monday morning after - as usual - a night of little sleep for the Steelers. But he didn't spend as much time celebrating as many of his teammates, instead taking time to play video games with his sons.

'They were excited with playing Madacasgar II,' Holmes said.

Does 35 seconds sound familiar?

It should.

That was how much time remained when Plaxico Burress caught the winning touchdown a year ago in New York's improbable comeback win over New England, denying the Patriots from becoming the first 19-0 team in NFL history.

That one was exquisite. This one might have been even better.

'We're going down in history with one of the greatest games ever played in the Super Bowl,' Holmes crowed.

The Super Bowl used to be a Super Bore, producing rout after rout and doing little to justify all the pregame hype. But that has certainly changed in the new millennium, with one brilliant game after another making this must-see TV for even the most casual sports fan.

We should have known what was in store at that first title game of the 2000s. It ended with Tennessee's Kevin Dyson stretching for the goal line on the final play, coming up one yard short of a tying touchdown and the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.

Since then, New England claimed two of its titles on last-second field goals by Adam Vinatieri. A year ago, the Patriots were heavily favored to finish off the greatest season in NFL history, only to be derailed by David Tyree's acrobatic catch with the ball pinned against his helmet, followed by Eli Manning's winning TD pass to Burress.

Pittsburgh vs. Arizona was as thrilling as any of those, even though it had all the makings of a major mismatch.

The Steelers have been one of the greatest franchises of the Super Bowl era, coming into Sunday's game tied with Dallas and San Francisco for the most titles. The Cardinals are a vagabond organization that once played on the south side of Chicago, wandered down to St. Louis for a few decades, then wound up in the Arizona desert - first in the eastern suburbs of Phoenix, now on the west side of the sprawling city.

Pittsburgh was going for its second Super Bowl crown in four years and sixth overall. The Cardinals had not played for a title of any kind since 1948 - nearly two decades before the start of the Super Bowl era.

Well, the Steelers got one for the (other) thumb. But Arizona was a loser worth admiring, showing just how far it has come since those not-so-long-ago days as a penny-pinching, laughingstock of a franchise.

'You are two minutes away from being world champions,' Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner said. 'Either way, I am proud of this football team. I am so proud to be a part of this football team. I think that is one of the reasons why it doesn't hurt as bad as it could.'

Warner, who knows a thing or two about defying the odds, brought the Cardinals back after Pittsburgh went to the final quarter leading 20-7.

At that point, it looked as though Steelers linebacker James Harrison, the NFL's defensive player of the year, was a shoo-in to add another award to his trophy case. He pulled off the longest play in Super Bowl history at the end of the first half, intercepting a pass by Warner at the goal line, then bobbing and weaving down the sideline for a 100-yard touchdown return.

'Those last couple of yards were probably tougher than anything I've done in my life, but probably more gratifying than anything I've done in football,' Harrison said.

The Cardinals had first down at the 1 when Warner let go of the ill-fated pass, which turned what could have been a 14-10 lead for Arizona into a 17-7 edge for the Steelers going into the halftime break.

While Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band rocked the crowd at halftime, Arizona plotted a comeback. It took a while to get going, as Jeff Reed's second chip-shot field goal for the Steelers provided the only scoring of the third period.

But that fourth quarter was a doozy.

Warner sparked the comeback by completing eight straight passes on an 87-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard touchdown lob to leaping Larry Fitzgerald.

20-14.

The Cardinals' next drive stalled, so they turned to special teams and defense. Ben Graham pinned the Steelers at the 1 with a pooch punt. The defense put the heat on Roethlisberger when he dropped back to pass on third down, leading to a holding penalty on Justin Hartwig that resulted in a safety.

20-16.

Pittsburgh punted it away, and Warner wasted little time looking for his favorite receiver. Fitzgerald cut left toward the middle of the field, beating Ike Taylor. Safety Troy Polamalu failed to get over in time to provide help, leaving a gaping hole.

Fitzgerald hauled in a short pass without breaking stride - and was gone. The 64-yard touchdown pass gave Arizona its first lead of the night with 2:37 remaining.

23-20.

On the sideline, Holmes challenged Roethlisberger to get him the ball. The third-year receiver envisioned himself scoring the winning touchdown, winning the MVP award, and claiming a permanent spot in Super Bowl lore.

Roethlisberger must have been listening. He went to Holmes for 14 yards, then 13. When an Arizona defender slipped on yet another pass to Holmes, he hauled it 40 yards to the Arizona 6.

'If you get the ball to 'Tone' he's going to make a play,' Roethlisberger said.

Well, one got away. On first-and-goal, Roethlisberger threw toward Holmes in the left corner, but the high pass slipped through his hands. He slapped the turf in disgust, but never lost confidence. He was ready for his second chance.

Roethlisberger did his part, too. Holmes was not the intended receiver on the winning play, but the quarterback had to improvise when his other targets were covered.

He described it this way: 'Drop back, scramble right, scramble left, find someone open.'

While the referee checked out a replay to make sure Holmes got his feet down while he had control of the ball, the receiver never had any doubt.

'I knew it was a touchdown 100 percent,' Holmes said. 'My feet never left the ground. All I did was stand up on my toes and extended my hands.'

The latest upswing in Warner's remarkable career came up just short of another Super Bowl title.

The guy who went from anonymous Arena League quarterback to two-time NFL MVP, leading St. Louis to a championship in that 2000 thriller against the Titans, looked to be washed up when he got to Arizona, nothing more that an experienced backup to Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart. But Warner pulled himself up again, took the job from the kid and led the Cardinals to their first title game of any kind since 1948, when they still called Chicago home.

The only thing missing late Sunday night was another ring.

Warner did all he could, becoming the first quarterback to pass for 300 yards in three Super Bowls. He finished 31 of 43 for 377 yards and three touchdowns.

'We made it to a place no one thought we would be,' Warner said. 'It doesn't get any better than this.'

Until next year.