Ben Roethlisberger’s Steelers faced off against Kurt Warner’s underdog Cardinals in a match up for the ages. This for me ranks as one of the very best Super Bowls, filled with interesting narratives, wonderful plays and a tremendous finish. This review will take a step back to February 1st 2009 and address what could have been for the plucky Cards.
Arizona Cardinals run to SB XLIII
I always go back to A Football Life: Kurt Warner. An amazing tale of unexpected success, which has inspired me personally and professionally to keep attempting to improve myself. Much of my love for the NFL can be accredited to Kurt Warner’s story.
Warner is traditionally linked with the storybook 99-01 Rams ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ side. Warner went from bagging groceries to two MVP awards and one Super Bowl ring.
However, in my opinion his Cardinals tenure offers more about his character and mental strength.
After facing a multitude of injuries, Warner’s Rams career ended with a whimper, released to take some heavy hits before Eli Manning took over the Giants. In 2005, he was signed by the Cards to do a similar job for college sensation Matt Leinart. However, through perseverance and good play, the 37-year-old Warner beat out Leinart and entered the 2008 season as the starter.
He showed unbelievable toughness and attempted to drive the unfancied Cards forward, leaning on excellent receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Warner threw 30 touchdowns in this season and received Pro-Bowl honours for his form.
Arizona Cardinals 2008 Playoff run
The 2008 Cardinals side finished 9-7, winning a mediocre NFC West as the only team in the division to boast a winning record. They finished the regular season poorly, and were expected to be early casualties. However, after besting the Falcons in an exciting Wildcard match up, they caused their first major upset of the playoff run by defeating the NFC South champ Panthers in Carolina.
A truly unbelievable game followed against the Eagles in the NFC Championship.
Labelled ‘Larry Fitzgerald’s Legendary Day’ on the NFL’s YouTube page, it should be considered essential viewing for any new NFL fans.
The Arizona crowd is electric as they fight off a formidable opponent in the Eagles. The aforementioned Fitzgerald was responsible for 3 out of 4 of the Cardinals offensive TD’s, including an incredible 62-yard reception from Warner’s flea flicker.
Fitzgerald ended the game with 152 yards from 9 receptions, dominating the Eagles secondary.
The game is as topsy-turvy as a fixture gets, with the Cards going in up 18 points at HT yet facing a daunting Eagles comeback which included three unanswered touchdowns from Donavan McNabb in the second half. A fourth quarter drive from Warner, (which included a 4th and short success) ended with a touchdown from Hightower, creating a 32-25 lead which would not be answered. The scenes at the end of the game are a sight to be seen, as the Cardinals became arguably the most unfancied team to ever reach the big game. Many fans are seen with tears in their eyes at this unexpected achievement.
Opposing the Steelers
The Steelers had a more traditional run to the Super Bowl to represent the AFC.
They finished the regular season 12-4 despite having an extremely tough schedule. Built on a truly intimidating defence that included DPOY James Harrison, the constant threat Aaron Smith and the terrifying Troy Polamalu, the Steelers were able to reach the AFC championship with a flurry.
They met divisional rivals Baltimore Ravens, in a feisty clash that could be likened to an all-out war. As with the NFC title game, it should be essential viewing for Football fans that have not seen it.
The first half is a hard-hitting defensive battle with interceptions and sacks aplenty. Troy Polamalu was at his electric best in this matchup.
As a viewer, your eyes immediately follow 43 throughout every Ravens offensive play, as he is a constant presence for the Ravens to account for. It is a dominating performance which showed why he assisted in revolutionising the safety position. His pick-6 from the rookie Joe Flacco to win the game is met with pure adulation from a boisterous Heinz Field. The game finished 23-14 and the Steelers went on to Tampa to meet the Cardinals.
Super Bowl XLIII
The strong narrative heading into this game was that the Cardinals would struggle to compete with the Steelers defence. John Madden, who was commentating on this game, called the Steelers a ‘pick your poison’ defence, due to the amount of ways they could hurt you.
Pittsburgh eased into a quick 10-0 lead with their first two drives. After a scoreless first quarter for the Cardinals, Warner started the second with a bumpy drive, fraught with short yardage and holding penalties.
Eventually Warner was able to hit Anquon Boldin for 45 yards with his first reception of the game. This play led to a 1-yard TD to the TE Patrick, which Warner threw while stumbling.
Roethlisberger then threw an interception on a throw that was deflected, giving the Cardinals the chance to enter HT with an unexpected lead.
Disaster hit with 18 seconds left in the half, with an event incredibly momentous play in Steelers history.
At the Steelers 2-yard line, Warner dropped back aiming for Boldin, but his pass was intercepted by James Harrison, who had dropped back rather than rushing Warner. Harrison then started his run back, frantically chased by lineman and wide receivers alike.
Mimicking a scene where Tom can’t quite catch Jerry, Harrison escaped all potential tacklers, before eventually being caught by Fitzgerald. Alas, Fitz efforts were in vain, as Harrison had crossed the Cardinals goal line for a 100-yard pick six. The longest return in Super Bowl history at that time. The Cardinals entered the dressing room at HT down 17-7.
After a Bruce Springsteen half time performance, the two teams returned to the field.
The Steelers dominated the ball in the third quarter, systematically taking time off the clock. Yet, the Cardinals held the Steelers to ghfdd points, and faced a 20-7 deficit going into the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals received the ball at the 13-yard line after a superb Darnell Dockett sack on Roethlisberger forced a punt. Warner received the ball with around 11 minutes left, installing a no-huddle offence to aid time consumption. The veteran signal caller was perfect on an 87-yard drive, finally being able to utilise Fitzgerald with big plays.
Warner finished the drive with a beautiful fade to Fitz, who proved why he is one of the greatest playmakers all time with a beautiful leap above Ike Taylor.
It was a necessary quick drive which gave the Cardinals hope and reduced the deficit to 6. The two teams then traded punts, with the Cardinals punter trapping Roethlisberger in his end zone. A holding penalty on the Steelers forced a safety, and the Cardinals received 2 points. More importantly, the Cardinals received ball with 2:58 and two timeouts left.
What followed was a thing of beauty.
Warner dropped back on second and 10, with 2:48 on the clock. A clear look is made to Fitzgerald, who accelerates into the middle of Steelers territory like a runaway train. The moment is encapsulated perfectly by the commentators Al Michaels and John Madden who enhance the emotion of the moment with their words.
Fitzgerald’s run is a moment which had every right to win a Super Bowl, pure magic from one of the undisputed best. The score line opened up to a 23-20 lead, with less than 3 minutes remaining.
Roethlisberger and Holmes
The Steelers received the ball at the 23-yard line. After a 10-yard penalty, Roethlisberger began to demonstrate his innate ability to avoid the rush to find Holmes for two big plays.
Michaels begins to talk up the ability of the Steelers kicker, as the Steelers are yet to cross the 50-yard line with 1:00 remaining. Roethlisberger’s third throw of the drive to Holmes gained 40 yards after a slip from the Cardinals defender, and Warner is fraught with worry on the side line.
Roethlisberger almost reaches Holmes on the first down, but the ball goes through his fingers. Yet, it is the second down throw which breaks hearts in Arizona. A truly remarkable throw from Roethlisberger bypasses three Cardinals defenders to hit Holmes with inches remaining in the end zone.
Holmes is able to get his toes down with an incredible display of poise and balance, putting the Steelers ahead with :35 seconds left on the clock. The NBC cameras manage to capture Larry Fitzgerald mouth ‘oh no’, in his complete dismay at the touchdown.
A beautiful throw from Warner to Fitz manages to take the ball to the halfway mark. A touchdown required for the Cards, as the score difference is 4 points. With 15 seconds left, the Cardinals hopes crumble. Warner, who has thrown for 377 yards, three touchdowns and a singular interception attempts to buy time for a Hail Mary effort to the end zone. However, LaMarr Woodley was able to strip Warner of the ball, bringing a truly remarkable game to its conclusion.
It could be argued that was the best Super Bowl of all time.
Madden calls it a heavyweight bout, and it definitely had some Rocky Balboa vs Apollo Creed about it. Warner stood tall in his penultimate season to enact an excellent comeback, but Roethlisberger should be credited for the magnificent way he constantly found Holmes on the final Steelers drive.
The winning throw is one of the greatest throws of all time, perfectly placed to cement the Steelers lead. For the Cardinals, this is one of those ‘what could’ve been’ stories which often manifest in sports. The little engine that could were so close to the promised land, but were unable to make one play to stop the offensive onslaught.
While Warner reached the HOF without a second ring, it is arguable that he would not have had to wait three years if the Cardinals had completed the game with a win. Warner would go on to retire after a devastating knockout blow against the Saints the following year, but still retains adulation in Arizona for his heroics. Super Bowl glory still eludes Larry Fitzgerald, and without Kyler Murray becoming a true rookie sensation, it is doubtful that he will ever attain a ring.
Therefore, Super Bowl XLIII will always go down as a ‘what could’ve been’ moment for the Cardinals. Had they kept the Steelers out on that final drive, we could have still be talking about the unlikely, tremendous comeback which denied the Steelers their 6th crown. Instead, the Cardinals hope that the next generation of players can enact a similar run like the 2008 season, but this time win the big game.