TAMPA, Fla. — The Arizona Cardinals were achingly close. They needed to hang on for just 2½ minutes to complete a stunner of a Super Bowl comeback.
It wasn’t to be. This miracle of a season would have no perfect ending.
Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald, the aerial combination that was so spectacular in the playoffs, connected for two touchdown passes in less than five minutes against the fierce Pittsburgh Steelers defense to give the Cardinals a 23-20 lead Sunday night in Super Bowl XLIII.
Only 2:37 separated Arizona from an incredible Super Bowl upset, a glorious finish to a playoff run that nobody had expected from this long-downtrodden franchise. But it was too much time. Santonio Holmes’ tiptoe touchdown catch with 35 seconds to play spoiled everything for the Cardinals.
It was a heady ride for a franchise that won its lone championship 61 years ago as the Chicago Cardinals. The team had one postseason victory since then on a journey of ineptitude through St. Louis and on to Arizona.
Until the three-game roll to this year’s Super Bowl.
But the Cardinals went home ruing the many mistakes that put them behind in the first place.
“It hurts so bad to get this close to being a champion,” Fitzgerald said.
Warner completed 31 of 43 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns, with one costly interception. The 31 completions were one shy of New England quarterback Tom Brady’s Super Bowl record and tied Buffalo’s Jim Kelly for second.
Warner now holds the top three marks for passing yards in a Super Bowl, previously throwing for 414 yards in 2000 against Tennessee and 365 yards against New England in 2002 while with the St. Louis Rams.
Warner set an NFL record with 1,147 passing yards in this postseason, and his 11 touchdown passes tied the mark set by Joe Montana in 1989.
“I’m so proud of this football team. I think that’s probably one of the reasons it doesn’t hurt as much as it could have,” Warner said, “because these guys exceeded expectations, they were so fun to play with. I can’t say enough about the season that we had.”
On Sunday, Fitzgerald caught six passes for 115 yards — in the fourth quarter — after having just one reception for 12 yards in the first three. He finished with 30 catches for 546 yards in four postseason games, shattering Jerry Rice’s NFL playoff record of 409 receiving yards in 1988. However, the numbers didn’t mean much to Fitzgerald.
“I just feel empty, to be honest with you,” Fitzgerald said, “kind of like all for nothing. You’ve just got to try to pick up the pieces and come back strong next season.”
His 64-yard scoring pass from Warner gave Arizona its only lead of the game.
“I knew it wasn’t over,” Warner said. “I tip my hat to the Steelers. They made some tremendous plays. … They won this game. We didn’t lose it.”
But when the dust settles from this crazy finish, Arizona can look back at its 11 penalties for 106 yards.
“They’re hard to overcome,” head coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “There were a number of penalties called on us tonight, a lot of times in critical situations, and they’re very difficult to overcome.”
And of course that interception at the end of the first half, when the Cardinals were driving for what would have been the go-ahead touchdown.
On first-and-goal from the Steelers’ 1-yard line, James Harrison stepped in front of Anquan Boldin and picked off Warner’s short toss, then rambled 100 yards for a touchdown that made it 17-7 Pittsburgh at halftime.
Warner said the Steelers were showing an all-out blitz, then Harrison slipped back.
“I couldn’t see him around our linemen, with the pressure coming in,” Warner said. “I thought I had Q for a split-second there. He jumped out there and made a play. The unfortunate thing was we couldn’t get him down.”
Fitzgerald couldn’t quite bring the big linebacker to the ground at the Arizona goal line, and his efforts at the end couldn’t make up for it.
“I’m disappointed for our team,” Whisenhunt said. “This is a group of men that I’m very proud of. They played very hard in circumstances where nobody believed in them. … We learned a lot about our team, it’s just unfortunate it had to come out that way.”
Warner’s contract with Arizona expired when the season ended. The 37-year-old quarterback hasn’t decided if he’s going to stay in the game.
“I don’t know if I’m going to play next year,” he said. “I haven’t thought about that. I’m going to enjoy what we just accomplished as a football team. I’m going to enjoy this year. I’m going to enjoy this great game that we just played in. And I’m going to take some time away from the game and then I’ll make that decision.”
Warner refused to be too disappointed.
“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t play our best game, our cleanest game,” he said, “and we hurt ourselves some in that regard. But again, guys kept fighting, guys kept battling and we gave ourselves a chance to win the world championship. And I’m going to hang onto that.”
But Boldin, who caught eight passes for 84 yards, took no solace in coming close.
“The only satisfaction is winning the football game,” he said. “There’s no consolation prize.”