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Fairy tales aren’t meant to end like this

If he was watching, Yogi Berra would no doubt have said it was like déjà vu all over again.

Last year, Super Bowl XLII was decided when the New York Giants – a blue collar, run-biased team with a hard-hitting defense – came from behind to win on a touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds remaining.

Last night, Super Bowl XLIII was decided when the Pittsburgh Steelers – a blue collar, run-biased team with a hard-hitting defense – came from behind to win on a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone … with 35 seconds remaining.

Or, as Bon Jovi so aptly put it on Wanted Dead or Alive: “It’s all the same / Only the names will change.”

Like many other sports, the NFL is full of oft-spoken aphorisms. Two in particular spring to mind: offense wins games, but defense wins championships; Super Bowl winners always have an effective running game.

In many respects, Super Bowl XLIII followed the form book. Pittsburgh had finished 12-4 in the regular season despite a brutal schedule, and boasted the NFL’s top-ranked defense to boot. The Arizona Cardinals were the rank outsiders, having finished with a 9-7 record – just 3-7 against opponents outside their division – and carrying the league’s worst rushing attack (albeit one which had improved markedly during their playoffs run).

In others, however, conventional wisdom was defied. For sure, Pittsburgh had the number one-ranked defense, but in the final analysis it was their offense which won this match in the closing moments. And at no stage last night did they ever establish a credible running game – 58 yards at an anaemic 2.2 yards per carry was not atypical of an attack which ranked just 23rd out of 32 teams in rushing yards (and 29th in yards per carry) during the regular season.

The game did, however, obey one of my own personal laws of the Super Bowl: no matter how ordinary the game may appear, do not go to bed early or you are bound to miss something big.

As so it proved to be.

The first three quarters of the game had been pretty ordinary fare, with the flow being disrupted by frequent penalties – 18 in all – and video reviews of marginal plays. The Steelers had grounded the Cardinals’ high-flying pass offense and eked out an apparently decisive 20-7 lead – no team has ever won a Super Bowl after trailing by more than ten points – largely off the back of the game’s one spectacular play, a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker James Harrison as time expired in the first half.

But then, in the final 12 minutes, the game exploded.

First Kurt Warner, seeking to become the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams, completed eight consecutive passes against the NFL’s best defense to bring the Cardinals to within 14-20.

After an exchange of punts, Pittsburgh found themselves pinned back on their one-yard line. On third-and-10, an apparently successful pass play was negated by a holding penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety. 16-20.

Arizona received the ensuing kickoff and Warner required only two plays to fire a 64-yard scoring pass straight down the middle of the field to star receiver Larry Fitzgerald. With 2:37 remaining, the underdog Cardinals had their first lead of the game, 23-20.

Cue Roethlisberger. A Super Bowl winner with Pittsburgh in only his second NFL season (2005), the Steelers had won that match in spite of rather than because of him: ‘Big Ben’ had ended the game with the worst passer rating of any winning quarterback in Super Bowl history. That was emphatically not the case this time. Facing the sudden and unexpected prospect of defeat, Roethlisberger worked the field and the clock, even overcoming a dropped pass by Holmes in the end zone before hitting the same receiver on the other side of the field on the very next play for what proved to be the decisive score.

Down by four and needing a touchdown, Warner was able to drive the Cardinals past midfield in the limited time remaining, only to suffer the ignominy of being stripped of the ball as he tried to buy time for one final, desperate heave into the end zone.

It was a sad way to end the game for the league’s Cinderella Man: the former NFL Europe and Arena football player who went from bag-packing in a grocery store to leading the St Louis Rams to their only Super Bowl triumph after the 1999 season; the washed-up veteran who led Arizona to their first Super Bowl. If, as he has hinted, Warner opts to retire rather than subject his battered 37-year old body to another campaign, it’s not the fairy tale ending he or the Cardinals’ long-suffering fans – the franchise, which has become synonymous with futility, has now gone 62 years since its last NFL championship – would have hoped for.

Regardless, Warner can at least lay claim to the three highest passing yardage totals – two in a losing cause – in Super Bowl history. As seems to happen every year, this was just one of a number of Super Bowl records to fall: in addition to Harrison’s 100-yard play, Pittsburgh became the first team to win six Super Bowls, and, at 36, head coach Mike Tomlin became the youngest man ever to lead a championship-winning side.

The defeat will have had an added edge for his Arizona counterpart, Ken Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in their previous Super Bowl win and was passed over for the head coaching job two years ago … in favour of Tomlin.

But, like Warner, Whisenhunt’s fairy tale had a sting in the tail rather than a happy ending.

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