Mike Tomlin coached timid early, and his Pittsburgh Steelers melted down late.
But on a Sunday evening for the football ages, Pittsburgh defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 to claim a record sixth Super Bowl victory and elevate Tomlin to the coaching mountaintop at the tender age of 36.
Tomlin becomes the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl, eclipsing Jon Gruden, a man for whom he worked with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I'm not concerned about my personal milestones," Tomlin said. "I just want to add to the Pittsburgh Steelers' legacy."
He and his team almost went down in infamy.
Ahead 20-7 entering the fourth quarter, the Steelers fell behind 23-20. No Super Bowl team has lost after leading by more than 10 points.
But after the Cardinals went ahead on Kurt Warner's 64-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald with 2:37 remaining, Ben Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 78 yards for the winning score — his spectacular, 6-yard pitch-and-catch with game MVP Santonio Holmes.
"It's never going to be pretty," Tomlin said of his team. "Throw style points out the window."
Indeed, during the fourth quarter Pittsburgh squandered its 13-point advantage.
Cornerback Ike Taylor's personal foul fueled an Arizona touchdown drive, and center Jeff Hartwig's end-zone hold gave the Cardinals a safety. Most important, Warner and Fitzgerald were making like Montana and Rice, hooking up on two scoring passes.
And suddenly, a Tomlin decision from hours earlier loomed large.
Tomlin promised during the pregame hype that he wouldn't coach any differently in the Super Bowl than during the regular season.
On the Steelers' opening possession, after a Cardinals' challenge overturned a 1-yard Roethlisberger touchdown run, Tomlin chose to attempt an 18-yard field goal rather than a fourth-and-a-fingernail.
Jeff Reed's chip-shot gave Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead, but the call contrasted markedly with Tomlin's regular-season aggression.
The Steelers extended their edge to 10-0, but when the Cardinals countered with an 83-yard touchdown drive, Tomlin's blink seemed destined to become an issue.
When Arizona seized command late, Tomlin's decision figured to be rehashed in Pittsburgh longer than the Immaculate Reception.
"If I could win any way, it would be like that," Tomlin said of the late theatrics. "I believe we're built for moments like that."
Most hearts weren't built for fourth quarters like that: Two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks dueling; three touchdowns, a safety and a flag-happy officiating crew.
Even the first half's finish prompted palpitations as Steelers linebacker James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown as the clock expired.
"You are seconds away from me crying in the locker room, and (the Cardinals) being out there (celebrating)," safety Troy Polamalu said. "That's how amazing this game is."
Tomlin insisted that as Fitzgerald sprinted toward the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown, he did not sag.
"Really, I don't ride the emotional roller coaster," he said. "I don't know why. … I try to see the game with great clarity so I can provide the leadership my men need."
Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh two years ago with thin credentials for a head coach, especially one inheriting a signature NFL franchise one season removed from a Super Bowl championship.
But Tomlin has guided the Steelers to two division titles, and now, a Super Bowl victory.
"Mike Tomlin has just done a marvelous job," owner Dan Rooney said.
During the Super Bowl era, 247 men have served as NFL head coaches. Tomlin is the 26th to win a championship.
But Tomlin studies football history and understands life's cycles. He knows that his rapid rise guarantees nothing.
For example, Baltimore's Brian Billick and Tampa Bay's Gruden won their first Super Bowl, failed to return and were pink-slipped.
Heck, Mike Shanahan coached Denver to consecutive Super Bowl victories, but the Broncos' recent struggles prompted his firing last month.
Swarmed by media in the interview tent, Tomlin spied his stepfather, Leslie Copeland.
"Hey chief," Tomlin said, "this is for you."
Like he did after the AFC championship victory over Baltimore, Tomlin declined to touch the trophy presented to the Steelers.
"I see five of them every day when I go to work," he said with a laugh.
Tomlin did not laugh two years ago when some questioned his qualifications.
"They took some criticism," Tomlin said of the Rooney family, "and I took it personally. … (But) I had great belief in the Rooneys, in their decision-making. They know what they're doing. …. All I wanted to do was prove them right."
Seems he has.
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com For more from Teel read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltimeCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times