After falling behind 10-0 early, the underdog Cardinals appeared to have seized the momentum in the second quarter of a back-and-forth contest with the heavily-favored Steelers. With a nine-play touchdown drive, they cut into the lead and followed it up at the end of the half by another drive that lasted eight plays and had the offense knocking on the door again, threatening to take the lead before the intermission. But Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, showing why he was named Defensive Player of the Year, made perhaps the play of the game at a critical juncture, shifting momentum dramatically back in the Steelers' favor and perhaps saving the day for he and his teammates.
With 18 seconds remaining in the first half and trailing 10-7, quarterback Kurt Warner dropped back to pass from Pittsburgh's one-yard line, but was faced with heavy pressure from the defense. He tried to force the ball into wide receiver Anquan Boldin over the middle for the score, but Harrison stepped in front of the pass and weaved his way 100 yards down the field for a game-changing score as time ticked off the clock. So, instead of heading into the second half with the lead, or at worst a tie, the Cardinals suddenly found themselves down by ten points and reeling as they headed to the locker room.
After the opening drive of the second half by the Cardinals stalled near midfield, the Steelers took control of the clock with a 16-play drive -- aided by three personal fouls by Arizona -- that ground more than eight minutes off the clock and resulted in a 21-yard Jeff Reed field goal. It appeared at the time as if Pittsburgh had a firm grasp on the game, and they would put it away with little challenge from their opponent the rest of the way out.
As time continued to run down and into the fourth quarter, though, the Cardinals shifted into a no-huddle attack and began to find some success underneath. With the Steelers playing their safeties deep to take away the long ball, Warner began looking for Edgerrin James as a safety valve and his receivers on crossing routes over the middle. Arizona put together an eight-play drive that took less than four minutes and resulted in a one-yard touchdown reception by Larry Fitzgerald that cut Pittsburgh's lead to just six.
The Cardinals' next drive got off to a quick start as well, but a holding call on offensive tackle Mike Gandy put the team in a hole and the they were forced to punt with just 3:34 remaining. But as they hoped to do, they managed to pin the Steelers back at their own one-yard line, which proved to be critical.
On a third-and-ten play, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger escaped pressure and appeared to hit Santonio Holmes for a first down that would have all but ended the Cardinals' chances. But a holding penalty on center Justin Hartwig in the end zone negated the play and instead resulted, by rule, in a safety, making the score 20-16 with just over three minutes to play.
With the safety, the Steelers, of course, were forced to kick the ball to the Cardinals, who began their next drive at their own 36-yard line. And it took just two plays for Warner to hit Fitzgerald for 64 yards and what appeared to be the game-winning touchdown.
But just when it seemed the Steelers had let the game get away from them, they mounted a quick drive of their own. And with just 35 seconds left on the clock, Roethlisberger hit Holmes, who was triple covered, in the back right corner of the end zone for the toe-tapping game-winning score.
The game did end on a bit of a controversial note, though. With just seconds left on the clock, Warner dropped back to pass, but was hit by linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who forced what was called a fumble on the field although it looked as if perhaps Warner's hand might have been going forward at the time. Had the play been ruled an incomplete pass, however, the Cardinals still would have been facing long odds with just five seconds left and nearly half the field to cover.
Despite the fumble and the critical mistake he made near the half, Warner didn't have a bad day throwing the ball. In fact, he put up good numbers with a 31-for-43 performance for 377 yards and three touchdowns. But it was his huge mistake to end the first half that fueled Pittsburgh's run to an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl Championship.
The red-hot Fitzgerald, who had already set a postseason record for receiving yards prior to the Super Bowl, put in a fine performance as well despite being kept in check most of the first half. On the day he recorded seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
On the other side of the field, Roethlisberger put together a performance that merited MVP consideration as well. He didn't post gaudy numbers like his counterpart Warner, but he consistently escaped pressure, bought time for his receivers, and made big plays when it appeared the Cardinals defense had him for a loss.
Super Bowl MVP honors instead went to Holmes, who made four catches on the game-winning drive, including the final score. He also caught a total of nine balls for 131 yards.