By Greg Garber
TAMPA, Fla. -- What can you say about a game in which the longest play in Super Bowl history -- a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison -- was almost rendered a mere footnote? A contest that virtually eclipsed the highly anticipated glory-days halftime set of Bruce Springsteen?
For more than three quarters, Super Bowl XLIII was idling along toward yet another Pittsburgh Steelers victory when, well, all hell broke loose. When it was over, it may well have been the most exciting Super Bowl ever.
Just when it looked like the Arizona Cardinals had authored the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history -- scoring 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter -- the Steelers answered with a monstrous, improbable drive.
"Was that a 60-minute game, or what?" exclaimed Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "It came down to the last play, and we made it."
That was about right. From end to end, this one was even better than last year's crazy Giants victory over the undefeated New England Patriots and the Patriots' 32-29 win over Carolina at the end of the 2003 season.
And so, the Steelers distanced themselves from some of the greatest franchises in the league's history. Pittsburgh won its sixth Super Bowl, one more than Dallas and San Francisco, and the Steelers were thoroughly impressive across the board.
"It was wonderful," said Steelers chairman Dan Rooney. "They are all special. Difficult year at times, but it all worked out splendidly and we're thrilled."
The Steelers have now won two Super Bowls in four seasons, leaving them the dynasty of the moment in the NFL.
Roethlisberger was his efficient, muscular self and quelled any fears that there would be a repeat of his nervous sophomore-year performance in Super Bowl XL. He completed nine of his passes to Holmes, the Most Valuable Player, for 131 yards and that winning touchdown.
If you are a Steelers fan, Holmes' big catch was a thing of beauty. There were three Cardinals between Holmes and the ball, and only a square yard of end zone to operate in. Holmes leaped to snare the ball and managed to just touch his toes down before going out of bounds.
Replays confirmed the call.
"I knew it was a touchdown 100 percent," Holmes said. "My feet never left the ground. All I did was stood up on my toes and extended my hands"
One of the game's central questions was essentially answered 2½ hours before kickoff. Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward came out for warm-ups and appeared to move fairly easily after suffering a sprained right knee in the AFC Championship Game. Steelers fans, the vast majority, roared when he appeared on the big screen.
"We never doubted ourselves, not for a second. We stayed the course," Ward said. "Santonio Holmes really made a name for himself today.
"It speaks volumes about our team. We never gave up. To come back and win it like that is just unbelievable."
The Cardinals won the coin toss, but elected to defer and kicked off to the Steelers. About five minutes later, the game provided its first major second-guessing opportunity. First and second, actually.
Pittsburgh roared down the field, with a nearly flawless drive from Roethlisberger. He completed a 38-yard pass to Ward and, later, a 21-yarder to tight end Heath Miller. On third-and-goal at the Arizona 1-yard line, Roethlisberger rolled to the right side and was met at the goal line. Center Justin Hartwig pulled him into the end zone -- or so it appeared when officials signaled a touchdown.
But Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt challenged the play and subsequent replays showed that Roethlisberger's left knee was down before he crossed the goal line. Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin, faced with a fourth-and-goal at the 1, made the conservative choice to send in Jeff Reed to kick an 18-yard field goal. The Cardinals were lucky the deferral didn't blow up in their face as a touchdown, while Tomlin could be questioned for not trying to put the Cards in a bigger hole.
The Cardinals' first series was a fiasco. Running back Edgerrin James fumbled and recovered, then fell down on the next. The Steelers' blitzing Lawrence Timmons pressured Kurt Warner into an incomplete pass and the Cardinals were forced to punt.
Again, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers down the field. The drive's signature play: A crazy, athletic left-right-left scramble by Big Ben and an 11-yard completion to Miller on third-and-10. On the ninth play, short-yardage running back Gary Russell ran into the end zone behind the right side of the Steelers' offensive line and it was 10-0.
With the game seemingly spinning out of their grasp -- Pittsburgh outgained Arizona 140 yards to 13 in the first quarter -- the Cardinals rallied famously. They moved 83 yards for a seven-point answer, the biggest chunk a 45-yard play from Warner to Anquan Boldin. The score was a sweet 1-yard jump ball to backup tight end Ben Patrick, who outdueled flailing linebacker Larry Foote for the ball. With six minutes and 26 seconds gone in the second quarter, the score was now 10-7 and, suddenly, the boisterous Steelers fans weren't twirling their Terrible Towels.
With two minutes remaining in the half, Roethlisberger committed his first turnover of the postseason when Cardinals nose tackle Bryan Robinson tipped his pass at the line of scrimmage and linebacker Karlos Dansby fielded a soft blooper. The Cardinals were in business at the Steelers' 34-yard line.
What happened next vaulted instantly into the pantheon of great plays in Super Bowl history. All things considered, make that sports history.
There were 18 seconds left in the first half when, with the Steelers showing blitz, Harrison suddenly veered backwards at the snap of the ball and filled the void where Warner's short slant pass on the right side was headed toward Boldin. Warner never saw him. The two-time MVP was flat-out fooled by this year's Defensive Player of the Year. Harrison gathered in the ball and took off on a (insert seven or eight of your most breathless adjectives here) run down the right sideline. He was touched by three different Cardinals players, including Warner, and though he stumbled and bobbled, Harrison never lost his feet. Larry Fitzgerald hit him just short of the goal line, but Harrison's knee landed on the Cardinals receiver and he tumbled head-first into the end zone.
The play was good, very good, for 100 yards, the longest play in Super Bowl history. Because of its exquisite timing, it may have supplanted Giants receiver David Tyree's miraculous catch on the winning drive in last year's Super Bowl.
For it was more than just a fancy, century-mark record. With the Cardinals poised to take a 14-10 lead into halftime, or a 10-all tie at worst, Harrison completely ruined the Cardinals' morale and left them undeniably dispirited, heading into the locker room trailing 17-7. Momentum has rarely swung so viciously hard from one direction to the other.
The Steelers' defense, No. 1 in fewest points and yards allowed over the regular season, made another big play in the Cardinals' first drive of the second half. Farrior knocked the ball loose from Warner and Harrison recovered what was ruled a fumble. But Whisenhunt challenged successfully for the second time and the replay confirmed that because Warner had control of the ball, it was merely an incomplete pass.
At this juncture, the Cardinals lost their composure in fatal fashion with three personal fouls worth 34 yards. First, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was flagged for a facemask on Holmes, Dansby was whistled for roughing the passer on an incomplete pass and, finally, Adrian Wilson gave the Steelers three more cracks at a touchdown when he steam-rolled holder Mitch Berger. The Cardinals' defense proved stout and held, barely, for another Reed field goal, this one from 21 yards out.
And so it was 20-7 late in the third quarter and Arizona had entered the no-margin-for-error zone.
The Cardinals responded with a 1-yard pass from Warner to the strangely silent Fitzgerald and, with 7:33 remaining, Arizona still was viable, trailing 20-14.
After a big defensive stop, the Cardinals found themselves on their 25, 75 yards from the lead, with 5:28 left. Arizona moved all the way to the Steelers' 26-yard line -- and had a first down, but backed up, all the way out of field goal range.
The Steelers, starting from their own 1-yard line, were charged with a safety when a holding call wiped out a critical first down. After Pittsburgh punted, the Cardinals came back with a 64-yard touchdown from Warner to Fitzgerald, who split the safeties and scored with 2:37 left.
Roethlisberger took the Steelers 78 yards in eight plays, capped by the marvelous throw and catch by Holmes. When Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley knocked the ball loose from Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and Brett Keisel recovered with five seconds left, the game was a Roethlisberger kneel-down from being over.
And now the sixth sterling silver Vince Lombardi trophy is on its way back to Pittsburgh. Rooney, who has been there for all of them, was asked if the team's facility could possibly hold another.
"We'll do what we have to do," he said. "We'll make room."
Greg Garber is a columnist for ESPN.com.