Remember when people always used to say that the Super Bowl game itself, despite the hype and the advertisements, was "boring?" After last night and on the heels of last year, it should take at least at least a half-decade of clunkers for that cliché to take hold again.
For the second year in a row, a thrilling fourth quarter redeemed a game that, for a time, seemed headed for an unsatisfying result.
The fact is, the Steelers did not deserve the 20-7 lead they took into the fourth quarter, which owed itself solely to the "14-point-swing" provided by James Harrison's interception return for a touchdown. While the improbable "pick-six" by the Defensive Player of the Year was heroic, it was flukish, and therefore not something that should determine the season's champion.
But things changed when Kurt Warner -- he of the out-of-nowhere emergence in the late 1990s and the nearly-as-unlikely career turnaround this year -- showed he another comeback in him yet. When he hit a streaking Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown to put his team up 23-20, it seemed like merit had finally been rewarded in this game: The Cardinals had overcome perhaps the worst regular season of any Super Bowl participant, that catastrophic Harrison interception, and their own mistakes (including three personal fouls on one drive). But they played through, and with 2:30 left in the game, appeared to be following in the footsteps of the 2007 Giants as flawed but resilient champions.
If that had been the end result, it would have been a good Super Bowl. But the final plot twist made this game an all-time classic.
Americans loves their rugged heroes and two-minute drills, and Big Ben Roethlisberger stepped up and delivered both. Critics knock Big Ben because of his unconventional style, giving him the rap of an "ugly" player. While not graceful, his improvisational style is entertaining and unique. Nobody eludes capture like Big Ben, who belies the conventional wisdoms that quarterbacks needs to get rid of the ball quickly because they are afraid of fumbles and defensive linemen.
On the final drive, Big Ben zig-zagged and pump-faked his way through the pass rush, finally freeing himself to hit his receivers (read: Santonio Holmes). The talented but overlooked Holmes made the news earlier in the week when he admitted to selling drugs as a teenager. It was a courageous move that underscored the difficulties facing young black American males. And after he made a balletic, full-extension catch that won the Super Bowl, the voters showed their own courage by naming him the MVP: Roethlisberger was the hero, but Holmes had the best game.
The Steelers ability to answer the Cardinals comeback somehow made them more deserving than if they hadn't allowed the Cardinals to come back at all. It all amounted to a deeply satisfying game, made all the more so by the fact that the Steelers were the better team during the season despite being slightly outplayed last night. Upsets are great, but their specialness derives from their rareness. Two stunning Super Bowl upsets in a row would have cheapened the achievement.
Lastly, if the Super Bowl is ideally a showcase for the best the NFL has to offer, stars on both sides enriched this game last night.
For the Steelers -- in addition to Roethlisberger and Holmes -- James Harrison's pass-rushing skills were a constant factor: Although he did not register any sacks, the presence of Harrison drew holding penalties and double-teams, enabling fellow outside linebacker Lamar Woodley to notch two sacks. On Harrison's interception, he faked rushing at Warner, compelling the quarterback to unload the ball quickly... to Harrison, it turned out, whose return of the pick should go down as the most important play in Super Bowl history.
Any mention of that play should not go without crediting Dick LeBeau, the Steelers venerable defensive coordinator who invented the "zone blitz," and whose creative use of Harrison so confused Warner on that play.
Even with the interception, Warner would have become the game's biggest story if not for the untimely collapse of his defense. During a stretch in the fourth quarter, he pumped in ten straight completions, displaying the quick release and deadly accuracy that has allowed him to command some of the NFL's best all-time offenses. Even in a loss, his performance helped his case for the Hall of Fame, whose voters know that when Warner is on -- those years, those stretches of the game -- the NFL has rarely produced anyone better.
Warner's favorite target, Larry Fitzgerald, showed even casual football fans his freakish physical skills last night, which may be tops in the annals of wide receivers, including Jerry Rice. Fitzgerald does a lot of things well, but nothing more so than going up and snatching the ball at its highest point against shorter and thoroughly overmatched defenders. Last night, Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor was the victim; before the 25-year old Fitzgerald is through, there will be many more.
So football bids a fine farewell. As always, it will be missed and anticipated. Who ever said the Super Bowl was boring?