The Arizona Cardinals were proud of themselves.
Proud of the way they came back from a 13-point deficit to take a short-lived lead. Proud of the way they held together as a team and almost won Super Bowl XLIII.
You could feel for these men who played so badly for so long, made so many mistakes and overcame them all only to see a better team stage a bigger drive and score a bigger touchdown. They were the underdog’s underdog from the sorriest franchise that ever played the game, and on one unseasonably chilly night in Tampa, they almost erased 61 years of ineptitude.
And that was the problem. When the clock ran out on the Cardinals’ season, the sum of Arizona’s mistakes outweighed its accomplishments. Yes, the Cards almost beat the mighty Steelers. But they didn’t. The reason they lost was more what they didn’t do when it mattered than what Big Ben Roethlisberger did.
The game was there for the taking. But when in the game’s biggest moments, the Cardinals blew it.
There really isn’t a nice way to put it. After averaging about 48 penalty yards a game during three playoff wins, Arizona racked up 106 yards in penalties against Pittsburgh — an appalling total that showed a lack of discipline and execution. They had just one turnover until the game’s final seconds, but it was a killer. When all they had to do was stop the Steelers to win the game, they blew a coverage, a defender slipped, and Santonio Holmes galloped 40 yards to put the Steelers five yards away from their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.
And when the Cardinals had it all in their grasp, they gave it away.
They had just one possession and one first down in the first quarter. In the second, after scoring a touchdown to make it 10-7, they drove to the Steelers' 1-yard line just before the half. Kurt Warner misread the Steelers’ defense and threw the ball to Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison. One hundred yards and who knows how many broken tackles later, the clock had expired and Harrison was being tackled in the Arizona end zone for a touchdown.
Instead of leading 14-10, the Cardinals went into the locker room on the short end of a 17-7 score.
Except for that one interception, Warner had a pretty good game, and a great second half. But that’s like saying except for that annoying John Wilkes Booth, Mary Todd Lincoln really enjoyed watching “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater.
Warner is one of the game’s good guys, and he had a great season after being written off by everyone but the Cardinals and himself.
You had to wonder how much worse a defeat could hurt, because most people would be leveled by the agony of this one.
Warner tried to explain: “These guys have exceeded expectations. I am proud. We gave ourselves a chance to win a world championship, but the other team went out and won it.”
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