Greatest Games Ever Played: NFL Super Bowl XLIII
There is never a shortage of great games every year for every sport. They provide thrills, drama and pulse pounding excitement. The greatest games though do all that on the biggest stages with the greatest stakes on the line. They epitomize was professional sports is all about. Some games feature unforgettable names, others nameless role players who stepped up when they were needed. The essence of the greatest games ever aren't steeped so much in who played them, but how hard and well the two sides fought for what they most desired. So what are the greatest games of all time?
Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers
Super Bowl XLIII could not have pitted two more completely different teams against each other if the game had been scripted by a hundred Hollywood writers. The Pittsburgh Steelers rode tough defense and big-play offense through the toughest schedule in the NFL to a 13-3 record. This blue collar style served them well in the playoffs as they easily dispatched the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round, setting up a showdown with the division rival Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship. In one of the most physical games of the modern era, the two great defenses of Pittsburgh and Baltimore slugged back and forth most of the day. The Steelers held the lead all game but the Ravens drew to within two points in the 4th quarter. However, All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu ended their comeback when he intercepted a late pass and returned it for a touchdown. Pittsburgh was headed back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2005.
On the other hand the Arizona Cardinals were the last team on anybody's mind when the playoffs started. After rocketing to a 7-3 start in the regular season, they fell apart down the stretch, losing four of the last six games. Even though they won their division nobody saw them getting out of the first round, especially with a 37-year old quarterback. Arizona got started off right though, beating the upstart Atlanta Falcons 30-24 before making a trip to Charlotte to face the second seed Carolina Panthers. In a game that everyone picked against them, the Cardinals forced six turnovers and rode receiver Larry Fitzgerald to a stunning 33-13 upset. A week later in the NFC championship, the amazing run hit its most dramatic bump yet against the Philadelphia Eagles. After jumping out to 24-6 lead at halftime, Arizona watched the Eagles storm back to take a one point lead in the 4th quarter. Thankfully a timely offensive drive got it back and a two-point conversion made it a touchdown lead. Philadelphia failed to answer in the final seconds, sending the Cardinals to their first ever Super Bowl.
Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger
This Super Bowl would belong to the quarterbacks. Pittsburgh had watched all season as their young gun Ben Roethlisberger had withstood frequent poundings to keep his team on track the entire year. One very big part of his play they coveted the most was an ability to rally the team late in games when they were behind. In fact he had engineered five such comebacks during the regular season. Meanwhile the bigger story of the game was the improbable revival of Kurt Warner. After leading the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams to two Super Bowls and one title in St. Louis, injuries and erratic play seemed to spell the end of his career. He spent a largely forgettable time with the New York Giants and appeared about to wrap up his football life in the NFL wastelands of Arizona. Instead he took the reigns late in 2007, and began to rediscover his old magic. His 30 touchdown passes in the regular season and eight touchdowns to two interceptions in the playoffs was the reason they had made it to the big game.
James Harrison caps a Pittsburgh first half
However, as expected, it was the dominant defense of the Steelers that dictated things in the first half. While Arizona struggled to move the ball, Roethlisberger moved the offense repeatedly into Cardinals territory, collecting a touchdown and two field goals before the end of the first half. Arizona cut the lead to six on a one-yard touchdown from Warner. It looked like Roethlisberger would have a shot at more points but a tipped pass led to a Cardinals interception. Warner drove the ball to the one-yard line and was ready to punch it in to take the lead. Instead, a brilliant defensive call by Pittsburgh coordinator Dick LeBeau on a play called a "zone blitz" saw linebacker James Harrison drop back into coverage instead of normally rushing the passer. Warner didn't see him when he let the pass go. Harrison intercepted it and ran the ball 100 yards for a touchdown to cap a 17-7 Steelers lead at halftime.
Larry Fitzgerald and Santonio Holmes own round two
A lot of people may have counted Arizona out at that point. Pittsburgh barely gave up more than 10 points in a game, let alone a half during the season. So when the Steelers put up three more points early in the third quarter to stretch their lead to 20-7, it seemed bleak. Yet the resilient Warner refused to let his team go down. Later in the half he switched to a no-huddle offense to quicken the pace against the Steelers defense. This had an immediate effect. Arizona drove 87 yards in 13 plays that ended with a touchdown pass from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald.
The good fortune started to flow faster after that when the Cardinals defense forced a two-point safety on a holding call against Pittsburgh in the end zone, cutting the lead to four. Three plays later millions of people around the world stood stunned as Warner hit Fitzgerald on a 64-yard touchdown pass to take the lead 23-20. It appeared Pittsburgh was ready crack. On their first offensive play at the 22-yard line with two and half minutes left, they had another holding penalty. It was here that the trademark of their team, and specifically their quarterback began to show.
Roethlisberger began to use his mobility to avoid the Arizona pass rush. Two completions to receiver Santonio Holmes got them a first down. Another short pass set up 2nd and 6, where Roethlisberger took advantage of a Cardinals busted coverage to hit Holmes for a 40-yard pass. Six yards away from a touchdown, Steeler fans almost grew deflated when Holmes dropped the potential winning score on first down. Undaunted, Roethlisberger went back to him the very next play, finding Holmes in the corner of the end zone who had to use the tips of his toes to stay inbounds. The instant replay held up the call on the field of a touchdown.
Warner had 35 seconds to answer. He got the ball to the Pittsburgh 44-yard line to set up a Hail Mary but couldn't get the last pass off thanks to late rush by the Steelers defense that forced a fumble. The game ended 27-23 in one of the most thrilling finishes in sports history.
What was the most memorable play of Super Bowl XLIII
What made Super Bowl XLIII so unforgettable was its very nature. It took place barely a year after a similar title game ended with the staple of greatest ever when the New York Giants stunned the New England Patriots 17-14. Nobody expected the Cardinals to even compete with the Steelers. Instead they were two minutes away from winning if not for Roethlisberger. That late-game magic is what makes pro football such a love for its fans, and why it's the most popular sport in America today.