Matchup represents football at its best

This is what it’s all about.

I still don’t know how good the Arizona Cardinals or the Pittsburgh Steelers are, but that’s beside the point. What happened Sunday night was a reminder that when two tough, evenly matched teams stand up to each other for 60 minutes of football, the purity of competition comes through, never mind all the unnecessary roughness penalties.

When it happens in a Super Bowl, you consider yourself a very lucky spectator.

On a wild, unpredictable night, the Steelers somehow outlasted the Cardinals, who were trying to outrun their awful history. Santonio Holmes stretched up to catch a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left, giving the Steelers a 27-23 victory in Super Bowl XLIII. It wasn’t the Immaculate Reception, but, holy cow, what a grab. Three Cardinals were in the general vicinity of the pass.


Pittsburgh recovered a Kurt Warner fumble to finish off Arizona. If this is how it ends for the classy Warner, who hasn’t decided whether he’ll retire, he’ll have gone out a fighter.

His earlier touchdown pass over the middle to Larry Fitzgerald had a chance to break Pittsburgh’s will. Fitzgerald hauled in the pass at about the 50-yard line and outran the Steelers to the end zone. That, along with a safety that had given the Cardinals the ball, gave them a 23-20 lead with 2 minutes 37 seconds to play.

“Steeler football is 60 minutes,” Coach Mike Tomlin reminded everyone afterward. “It’s never pretty.”

He was wrong.

The Roethlisberger-to-Holmes connection was about as pretty a play as you’re going to see.

Holmes had nine big catches for 131 big yards and one big most-valuable-player trophy. In the huddle, Holmes told Roethlisberger he wanted the ball: “I said to him I wanted to be the guy to make the big plays.”

It was the sixth Super Bowl title in Pittsburgh’s history, a record, and this one was wonderful escapist entertainment. Don’t know if the acting was what anyone would call Shakespearean, but the special effects were excellent.

It begins and ends with James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return to end the first half. By the time he was done rumbling, stumbling and, in the end, tumbling into the end zone, it looked as if he might need one of those portable oxygen tanks just to make it back to the Steelers’ sideline.

“Those last couple of yards were probably tougher than anything I’ve done in my life,” Harrison said with a laugh.

The whole thing passed improbable somewhere around the 50-yard line and headed straight for impossible. Start with the man throwing the football. Warner had the Steelers right where he wanted them. The Cardinals had moved down to the Pittsburgh one, and it looked as if they were going to take full advantage of Karlos Dansby’s earlier interception of a tipped Roethlisberger pass.

Warner, an old hand at winning big games, took the snap out of the shotgun formation with 18 seconds left in the half, saw receiver Anquan Boldin and threw the ball. What ensued was probably 127th on the list of Things That Could Happen.

Harrison stepped up at the goal line and intercepted the pass. OK, that was No. 3 on the list of possibilities. Warner doesn’t usually throw bad interceptions like that, but it happens. The rest of it? Like something out of a fairy tale.

Harrison took off down the right side of the field. Warner had the first decent shot at him but made sort of a faint effort -- more of a wave, really -- at trying to tackle him. Maybe Warner was thinking what a lot of other people were thinking. Time was running out, a 6-foot, 242-pound linebacker was chugging down the field and what were the chances the guy was going to make it?

But Harrison kept running even as the last few grains of sand from the hourglass fell away. Former Chicago Bears offensive tackle Mike Gandy got in the picture for a while, then dropped behind. At the last moment, Fitzgerald caught up with a winded Harrison inside the five. He pulled him down, but Harrison landed on his helmet and flipped into the end zone. An official review upheld the decision on the field.

The 100-yard return seemed to dangle by a thread the whole time. If Harrison had stepped out of bounds late in the run, the half would have ended.

What looked like a decent chance of a 14-10 Arizona halftime lead became a 17-7 Pittsburgh halftime lead.

Give the Cardinals credit. They came back from that brutal chain of events to make a game of it. That’s not quite accurate. They came back and had every reason to believe they were going to win.

“To be so close and to have it snatched away, that hurts,” Fitzgerald said.

If they hadn’t had so many penalties (11 for 106 yards), the Cardinals might have won anyway. The officials were icing their arms afterward from throwing so many flags. In terms of bad penalties, this was one of the dumber games in Super Bowl history.

“We made too many mistakes,” Warner said.

He completed 31 of 43 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns. He had one very costly interception and, if this is the end, one excellent career.