Midway through the third quarter of Super Bowl XLIII, I was congratulating myself for attending a party instead of writing about the game. Pittsburgh was driving with a 10-point lead. The Cardinals had a salad fork sticking out of them ever since the 14-point swing at the end of the first half, when James Harrison unleashed his amazing 100-yard TAINT with help from the officials (who ignored LaMarr Woodley's blatant clipping and Harrison's getting tackled just short of the goal line). Other than that one play, this was a snoozefest. We weren't even getting enough Cuba Gooding Jr. shots.
So how did Pittsburgh almost blow this thing? Again, I was watching the game at a party. You eat and drink and talk to people at parties. I spent most of my night talking to friends and having inane conversations such as when my friend Ace and I tried to figure out if there was a sports equivalent to Sondra Locke's career. You remember her as Clint Eastwood's girlfriend in the late '70s and early '80s -- paler than pale, thin as a rail, couldn't sing, couldn't act -- who somehow ended up landing the lead actress role in six of Clint's movies. He could have gotten Farrah Fawcett for "Outlaw Josey Wales," Cheryl Ladd for "Every Which Way But Loose," maybe even a young Sharon Stone for "Sudden Impact." Nope. He kept sticking with Sondra. When they broke up, was Sondra grateful that Clint basically made her career? Did she throw him a solid? No!!!! She sued him for palimony. Unprecedented! We should be suing her for making Clint's career 28 percent worse for seven solid years.
The point is, these are the types of conversations you have at Super Bowl parties. I spent the last six minutes of the second quarter trying to figure out what Bruce was singing for halftime with Ace's wife, Lynette. We pegged three of the four but were stumped by the intro. Had to be something grandiose and fun. "Badlands"? "Rosalita"? "Prove It All Night"? Lynette predicted "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" because it had a happy beginning with a big intro, a fun chorus and the "Big Man joins the band" part. She nailed it. And Bruce ended up nailing the halftime show -- seriously, the guy is two years younger than my dad -- even unleashing one of his patented "slide across the stage" moves and slamming his crotch into a cameraman. That led to Lynette's openly admitting that she enjoyed seeing Bruce's package come flying at her in HD. Is anyone alive out there tonight? Here comes my crotch! Incredible performance. He even did the "spitting all over the microphone" routine with Little Stevie. My Bruce fix was satiated in every respect.
(Did Bruce's entertaining halftime show stop us from having the requisite "Isn't Patti Scialfa the Sondra Locke of musicians?" conversation? No. Of course not.)
Here's the point: I was talking to friends, semi-watching the game, adding up all my "winning" Pittsburgh-related bets and having a grand old time. Then a switch flipped and it turned into one of the better Super Bowl endings ever. (Note to anyone playing the "greatest ever" card -- we quickly overrate the Super Bowl every time it's good. Settle down. The fourth quarter wasn't any more exciting than the Panthers-Pats game. Fitzgerald's long TD wasn't any more or less exciting than Isaac Bruce's long TD that won the Rams-Titans game. The ending wasn't any more dramatic than Bills-Giants or Niners-Bengals II. Let the record show that this game sucked for three solid quarters except for the Harrison play.) And as I was driving home, I couldn't help but think
"What the hell just happened?"
How did Pittsburgh almost lose that game? How did the game go over? How did every one of my Super Bowl bets lose except for my tease with Pitt and the under? I cued up the game on TiVo, fast-forwarded to Pittsburgh's long drive in the third quarter, watched the Steelers screw up "first-and-goal from the 5" and settle for a field goal, watched the drive kept alive by Adrian Wilson's indefensible "running into the holder" penalty, remembered my thought at the time ("Well, that's it -- this game is over") and then took notes from that point on. Consider this a retroactive running diary of the last 18 minutes and 32 seconds of the game. I'll even time-stamp it as though it's happening live.
Steelers 17, Cardinals 7. Third quarter, 3:32 remaining. First-and-goal from the 4. And now, a little piece I'd like to call "How the Hell Did Pittsburgh Not Cover This Game?"
8:54 p.m. ET -- Parker rushes for 2 yards. The dirty little secret of SB XLIII was that Pittsburgh couldn't run the ball, especially inside the red zone. The key to the non-cover happened all the way back in the first quarter, when Ken Whisenhunt's challenge reversed the first Steelers touchdown, then Mike Tomlin went for three points over fourth-and-goal from the 4-inch line. I hate this call any time -- worst-case scenario, you don't get it and the other team is pinned deep -- but especially by a team with the No. 1 defense in football. Inexcusable. Bad strategy AND you're announcing to the other team, "We have no confidence in our running game." Which the Steelers obviously didn't. But with Hines Ward limping around, really, where were the Steelers going inside the 10? Why did I pick them again?
8:55 -- Play-action rollout by "Ben," pass tipped at the line, Antrel Rolle almost picks off the ricochet. To this point, the Steelers had run a whopping 13 plays inside Arizona's 10-yard line (nine of those inside the 5) and got 10 points total. Awful. Rashard Mendenhall, you were missed.
(Note: When Wilson's penalty kept Pittsburgh's drive alive, a mildly sloshed Ace stood up and screamed, "YOU NEVER TAKE POINTS OFF THE BOARD!" He had the Steelers minus-7. We argued about it and explained that, yes, inside the 10-yard line, you take points off the board. But if Rolle had picked off that pass, the sequel scream of "YOU NEVER TAKE POINTS OFF THE BOARD!" would have been heard all the way to Sacramento.)
8:56 -- Pitt breaks out the Steve McNair Memorial Delayed QB Draw. It's wide-open. One problem: "Ben" isn't Steve McNair. He gets tackled for a 1-yard loss. On this drive, Pitt had six plays inside the 8-yard line and couldn't find pay dirt. Jeff Reed's field goal makes it Pittsburgh 20, Arizona 7.
8:57 -- The "Transformers 2" commercial seems ominous in retrospect. This game is about to transform.
9:00 -- Al Michaels bemoans the fact that he's going to be announcing next week's Pro Bowl without John Madden, leading to Madden practically flat-lining as he mumbles, "And I'm sure you're gonna enjoy that, being in Hawaii, doing that Pro Bowl, that's gonna be a lotta fun." Sounds like it. Somebody get Madden an espresso.
9:02 -- Kickoff to Zona followed by more commercials. NBC runs a Conan promo. Translation: "See, Conan? We still love you! We're committed to your taking over the 'Tonight Show'! It might look like Leno is going to crush you by getting better L.A. guests in prime-time, and it might look like we set you up to bomb miserably so we didn't have to pay your giant penalty payment, and really, that's probably true, even though we'd never admit it, but, um did you see we gave you a Super Bowl ad?"
9:02 -- Warner's stats to this point: 15-for-22 for 143 yards, a TD and a TAINT. (He finished with 377 yards. Wow.) He tosses to Breaston for 4 yards as Michaels calls him "Kurt." Good to see him on a first-name basis with both QBs.
9:03 -- Warner to Boldin for a first down. Madden attributes Warner's recent resurgence to the fact that he's playing with gloves and he's 22 pounds lighter than he once was. And God. Don't forget God.
9:04 -- Yet another unenthusiastic 1-yard run for Edge James. (Arizona's running game was what we thought it was. OK? All right? It stinks! It was what we thought it was!) Michaels mentions that Warner has thrown only one pass more than 10 yards downfield. That's because Pittsburgh's safeties are playing so deep, Madden explains. Well, if that's the case, why wouldn't Zona go no-huddle and just pick them apart underneath? Where is the urgency? By the way, I said this at the time. I swear.
9:06 -- End of the third quarter, more commercials. The highlight: John Turturro for Heineken. Any time you can lock up the fifth lead in "Rounders" for a beer commercial that costs $3 million for 30 seconds, you gotta do it.
9:09 -- A holding penalty negates an Arizona first down, followed by a 6-yard pass, a third-down incompletion and the obligatory shot of Warner making the distressed "Come on guys, gee willikers, what the heck???" face. And if that's not enough, the Steelers almost blocked the ensuing punt: a 27-yard duck by Ben "You probably should have put me on IR and brought Tom Tupa back for this game" Graham. First down, Steelers ball, their own 43, 13:49 remaining, 13-point lead. Again, I ask you how did they almost lose this game?
9:12 -- So you're pitching me "Celebrity Apprentice" with Andrew Dice Clay, Tom Green, Dennis Rodman and Joan "I now look like a feline" Rivers? Yes! Uncle! I am in!
9:13 -- Automatic first down on a defensive pass interference by Rod Hood. Great porn name.
9:14 -- Fast Willie churns down the left side for 6 yards, putting the Steelers across midfield. (Here's where they could have put the game away, Part VIII.) That's followed by a horrific second-down run (Parker for minus-4 yards), and then "Ben" takes a twice-as-horrific third-down sack for a 16-yard loss. Twelve minutes to go, fourth-and-forever, Cards still alive. Could that have been a worse two-play sequence? Really, minus-20 yards at midfield with a 13-point lead? Isn't the game all about field position at that point?
9:16 -- Great punt by Berger, no fair catch by Breaston and he gets popped. Nice play. The Cards need an 88-yard touchdown drive just to cover the seven-point spread right now. Again, I refuse to apologize for counting up my gambling "profits" at the time.
(Speaking of gambling, my cell phone and in-box nearly exploded after Gary Russell pounded in the first touchdown of the game, which made Cousin Sal's "Super Bowl Prop Lock" -- minus-300 that Russell wouldn't score -- doubly funny since Russell cashed in 12-1 odds on his scoring the first TD. His final stat line for the game? Two carries, minus-3 yards, one score. You gotta love gambling.)
9:17 -- Hey, remember that fantastic Coke ad with Mean Joe Greene and the little kid from the '70s? If I told you that Coke planned on bringing them back as Coke Zero ads with Troy Polamalu, Polamalu's hair and an annoying little kid, you'd say, "That's a hideous idea; we should talk them out of it." Right? Well
9:19 -- Warner to Breaston for 12 yards. You can almost hear Michaels rifling through his "emergency story lines to bring up in case of a boring game" notebook. Page 3, Page 4 back to Page 1 I got it! Larry Fitzgerald's dad is a sports writer! And he's covering this game!
9:19 -- Warner to Urban for 17 and the Cards finally go no-huddle. That took only three quarters. (I mean, wasn't this the ideal no-huddle scenario? Safeties playing deep, veteran QB capable of calling his own plays, four-receiver shotgun -- I would have been all over this in "Madden.") Warner hits Fitzgerald for 6 yards, then Arrington breaks free on a swing pass for 22. Suddenly the Cards are on Pitt's 28 with less than 10 minutes to play. "If you give Kurt Warner an opening, he's gonna find it," Madden tells us knowingly. Hey now.
9:21 -- Warner hits Fitzgerald for 18 yards. He's 5-for-5 on this drive. Madden gets so excited by the play that he says the word "hands" six times in 16 seconds. He likes Fitzgerald's hands. He has big strong hands. Those hands can pluck a ball out of the air. Both Fitz and Boldin have big, strong hands. Hands. Hands. Hands.
9:21 -- Fitz for a 5-yard out. I liked his hands on that one. Great hands. Big, strong hands. Pittsburgh calls timeout to regroup. Again, why wait three quarters for the no-huddle? This was one of the secretly worst-coached Super Bowls ever.
9:23 -- Good news: Taco Bell is now offering a spicy enchilada platter, which gets the bronze behind Domino's new oven-baked sandwiches (silver) and Pizza Hut's new lasagna (gold) in the "We're Finding New Ways To Make America Fat" Olympics.
9:25 -- NBC comes back from commercial with a split screen of Larry Fitz Sr. and Larry Fitz Jr. I wish they could show me writing this retro-diary right now with a split screen of my dad passed out on his sofa in Boston. Meanwhile, Warner hits Hightower with a swing pass tackled at the 1! By the way, I think Ace and I were embroiled in a conversation about how "The Terminator" is now the most-dated movie of the mid-'80s (the special effects are comically bad) other than maybe "The Breakfast Club" -- I just remember looking up, seeing Arizona on the 1 and thinking, "Wait, I'm not going to cover this game?" This comeback drive happened in about 3.8 seconds.
9:25 -- 1-yard fade to Fitzgerald leaps for it TOUCHDOWN! (How did the Steelers not know that was coming? Really, that call came out of the blue?) Nobody celebrates a big TD more genuinely than Fitz. I love it. He gets you fired up even when you're losing money on the other team. That's followed by a shot of Larry Sr. breaking out the Art Shell Face in the press box. Wouldn't it be great if he was leaping up and down? I think I would have paid a grand to hear Michaels and Madden awkwardly react to that. Too bad. Instead, I'll just pay a grand to lose every bet I made on this game except for the Pitt/under tease that miraculously covered. Whatever.
9:26 -- Neil Rackers' PAT makes it 20-14 with 7:33 remaining. So long, Steelers' cover. In other news, congrats to Hulu for landing a Super Bowl ad. My baby's all growns up! My baby's all growns up! I love Hulu. Any video channel that streams complete "White Shadow" and "Miami Vice" episodes is good by me. I also loved NBC's commercial for its Monday night lineup in which the chick from "Medium" dances happily to "Feeling All Right" by Joe Cocker. Isn't "Medium" a depressing show about contacting dead people? I'm feeling all right! Oh-ho! I just contacted a 6-year-old dead girl trapped in purgatory! Oh-ho!
9:29 -- Coming out of the break, Madden mentions Fitz's hands four more times and then says his TD catch had "a little David Tyree feel to it." Ouch. I didn't see that one coming. Just reach into my stomach and pull out six feet of my small intestines next time.
9:30 -- The Steelers start their drive at the 24. Parker runs for 3, then "Ben" gets sacked by Darnell "I Am Playing So Well That You Can Pencil Me In For A Summer Holdout Even Though I Have Three Years Left On My Contract" Dockett for a 10-yard loss. Hey, everyone who backed the Steelers in this game -- remember when you thought to yourself, "I'm not crazy about Pitt's pass protection, and I'm not crazy about Pitt's short-yardage running game, and those are two normally giant flags in a Super Bowl game, but I like their defense so much that I'm taking them anyway?" Who else wants to hit the RESET button on that thought?
9:31 -- Heath Miller catches a harmless 10-yard pass that does nothing. Great drive, Pittsburgh. Watching this a second time, I am becoming more and more convinced that the Steelers did not deserve this game. After a Steelers punt, Zona takes over on its own 25 with 5:28 to play.
9:33 -- Well, MacGruber changed his name to "Pepsuber" and did a Super Bowl ad for Pepsi with the real MacGyver. And I enjoyed it. I continue to hate myself.
9:34 -- On the heels of a "Kurt Warner is amazing in the red zone in Super Bowls" graphic that single-handedly caused Warner's TAINT in the first half, NBC desperately tries to jinx Pittsburgh with a graphic showing that they're 142-1-1, including 10-0 in the postseason, with an 11-point lead since 1988. That was fun. I remember thinking at the time, "I bet that works."
9:35 -- Warner to Boldin for an 11-yard first down, followed by Pittsburgh's Ike Taylor's taking an extra shove and earning a 15-yard penalty. Even Cortland Finnegan thought that was stupid. First down at Pittsburgh's 49 for the Cards. Good God.
(My thought at the time: "Did I really talk myself out of that 5-to-1 'Arizona to win + the over' parlay just because Kurt Warner tried to back out of his puppy promise to his kids?" Not a strong handicapping year for your pal Simmons.)
9:36 -- Draw play to Arrington for 1. Time for the no-huddle again. "I think they can still do business over the middle," Madden tells us. Bam! Breaston catches one over the middle for 23. Ten straight completions for Warner.
9:37 -- Another holding penalty for Mike Gandy, his third. Win or lose, he has as good a chance of being Arizona's left tackle next season as Michael Vick does of winning his Atlanta job back. That's followed by an incompletion to Boldin, our 20th "Wait, is that Kurt Warner's wife? She looks great!" shot of the evening, then another incompletion. Third-and-20 from Pitt's 33. Big play.
(Note: I didn't realize the significance when watching the game live -- I was too busy arguing with Ace over the age of the youngest person in America named "Dick." I said that there's no way anyone under 35 is named "Dick." Ace said that there might be some preppy kid out there who's called "Dick" as a family name. Sadly, there's no way to settle this.)
9:39 -- Solid pass rush, quick check-off throw by Warner to the 19th-string tight end, incomplete. Not the greatest drive. Incredibly, Zona sends out the punt team. You're telling me Rackers couldn't have belted a 53-yarder there? Yet another strange call in a strangely coached game.
9:40 -- The Cards down the punt inside the 2. (Great call! I knew they should have punted!) When James Harrison earns an unnecessary roughness penalty for committing a felony assault on one of the Cards, the ball gets moved to the Pittsburgh 1 with 3:26 remaining. I'd like to congratulate Arizona's Michael Adams for successfully downing that punt without either botching it or stepping on the goal line. We watch punt guys screw that up every week during the season. Nice to see someone nail it on a big stage.
9:43 -- Pitt throws on first down. Incomplete. Stops the clock. Stupid until you remember that Pitt has already announced, "We can't run for 1 yard when we need it." That's followed by Parker nearly getting tackled for a safety. (Again: "We can't run for 1 yard when we need it.") And then, another weird coaching call: Timeout, Arizona. Third-and-10 from the 1-inch line, 3:04 remaining why stop the clock? Mike Lombardi is going to have a field day with some of the coaching calls in this game.
9:45 -- A first-down catch by Holmes gets called back because of a holding call in the end zone SAFETY! Cards now down by four. That's only the 10th safety in Super Bowl history. I know this because, when it happened, my friend Daniel started jumping around because he had wagered $100 on 50-1 odds that the first or last score of the game would be a safety. I ask you again: What's better than the Super Bowl? It's the only day of the year when we're allowed to openly embrace gambling! I love the Super Bowl.
9:46 -- Breaston returns the safety punt just 5 yards (to the Zona 35). A minor disaster. You have to reach your own 45 on a safety punt return. That's just the rule.
9:47 -- Ace and I had been making Madden jokes all game like, "This game is gonna come down to who scores the most points" and "Pittsburgh's defense is good because they can rush the pass, stop the run and stop the pass." So heading into this final Zona drive, when Madden's setting-the-stage analysis ended up being six words ("This is big, this is big") we laughed and laughed. I continue to think that broadcasters should not earn more than $20 an hour.
9:47 -- Incomplete to Boldin. Second-and-10. By the way, has any QB ever had a fatter face than Roethlisberger? If you had an All-Pro team of "Secretly Fat Guys Whose Relative Obesity Would Stun You If You Saw Them Shirtless," would "Ben" or Donovan McNabb be your QB?
9:48 -- Ohhhhh. Whoa. WHOAAAAAAAAAAAA!
9:48 -- Seriously, how exciting was that 65-yard TD to Fitzgerald? And how magnificent was it when he turned on the jets and ripped down the middle of the field like that? I love football. I didn't even care that I was losing money at the time. I guarantee that was 20 times more thrilling to watch in person than on TV. Between that play and Bruce's halftime performance, I officially regret not going to Super Bowl XLIII. I really do. If a great sports moment happens, you just have to put your personal interests aside and appreciate that moment for what it is. Well, unless it's the Helmet Catch. Cards 23, Steelers 20.
(One more note: Congrats to Fitz for officially joining Jerry Rice in my pantheon of "Receivers whom you know will be heard from in any big game, at some point, before it's over." Rice, Fitz and that's the whole list.)
9:48 -- Crap! I thought for sure we'd get Larry Sr. celebrating like Rod Tidwell in the press box. Didn't happen. I would have paid five grand for that one. Meanwhile, NBC gives us a killer wide shot of Pittsburgh lining up two deep safeties and Fitzgerald somehow splitting through them anyway. That was cool. I love football. I really, really love football.
9:49 -- All right, has any offensive coordinator seemed more likely to make out with every player or coach he was excitedly talking to than Todd Haley? Todd, bring it back eight inches please. Not even Joe Buck makes me that uncomfortable when he's gazing at Aikman.
9:51 -- Pittsburgh starts its season-saving drive at its own 22 with Michaels telling us that Arizona's win (if it happened) would be the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. A scant 150 seconds to play. I remember thinking at the time, "If they score a TD quickly, then Polamalu picks Warner for the game-ending TAINT, I can still cover this thing!"
9:51 -- Killer holding call on Pitt's left guard. First-and-20 from the 12. This touchdown drive was no joke. "Ben" does a nice job evading a sack (Note to Arizona's front seven: Drink heavily before you watch the tape of this game; you're going to be depressed by all the missed chances) and finds Holmes for 15 yards, followed by an incompletion on a deep pass. Third down. Two-minute warning.
(Looking back, how crazy was it that we were two minutes away from, in consecutive seasons, the New England Patriots making a defensive stand to finish 19-0 and the Arizona Cardinals making a defensive stand to win the Super Bowl? If you had told me this in 2000, I would have immediately had you committed like Angelina Jolie in "Changeling.")
9:55 -- Another big-time play by "Ben" (buying time in traffic Marino-style) and Holmes (pulling down the ball in traffic) for a crucial Pittsburgh first down. That was huger than huge. First down on the Pitt 38. That's followed by a first-down catch by Nate Washington to midfield. He's tackled in bounds. 1:20 1:19 1:18 1:17
9:56 -- Nice scramble out of trouble by Roethlisberger for 5 yards. Timeout, Pittsburgh.
9:57 -- Here's where the ginormous Holmes play happens: Nice catch on an in route, quick pivot, defender falls, suddenly he's sprinting down the sideline and Al Michaels is going Gus Johnson on us. He's tackled at the Zona 7 followed by Pittsburgh calling its last timeout. (Terrible. With 52 seconds left, why not hustle everyone down and run some clock off? You don't want to score too fast, right? So many bad coaching calls in this game.) We see Warner pacing nervously on the sidelines. Look, Kurt, you shouldn't have broken that puppy promise. That's the bottom line.
10:00 -- After missing Holmes on first down, Roethlisberger finds him with an impossible throw over three guys, only Holmes makes an even more impossible catch in the corner. TOUCHDOWN! Steelers 27, Cards 23! The cover is alive! I watched this play with at least 75 people: We made noise but secretly doubted Holmes got both feet in, but when they showed the replay of his tippy toes' scraping the grass, it was like, "Holy s---, he caught it!" I can't remember a bigger Super Bowl catch. Crap! David Tyree. I forgot. I'm pouring a drink.
10:02 -- Al Michaels breaks the 2009 record for "Most times using the word 'amazing' in a prime-time telecast," narrowly edging Jason on last week's episode of "The Bachelor." That was amazing. Nine catches for 131 yards and a TD for Holmes. He's a lock for Super Bowl MVP 15-1 odds. I almost wagered on it. Went with Fast Willie at 9-2 instead. It's going to be a few weeks before I shake the gambling stink of Super Bowl XLIII.
10:04 -- We see Kurt Warner sadly throwing a towel on the sidelines with one of those "Hey God, I thought you told me this was in the bag" looks on his face. One Super Bowl win, two agonizing Super Bowl losses for Kurt.
You know how the rest ended: Warner brought them to midfield before fumbling with five seconds left on a blindside hit. It looked like the fumble could have been overturned by instant replay and ruled a pass attempt. I mean, it really did. Throw in the excessive celebration penalty on Pittsburgh, and Zona would have had the ball on the Pittsburgh 29 with time for a Hail Mary attempt to Fitzgerald. God forbid this happened; it would have been too freaking exciting.
In retrospect, it was the second-weirdest "Why didn't anyone seem to care that the ending was shady?" sequence, narrowly trailing Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals, when the Lakers' crowd stormed the court with three seconds remaining, then Magic body-blocked Isiah right before he attempted the game-tying 3-pointer ... no call. That will never be topped. The Warner "fumble" was close though. I thought it seemed like a pass. What do I know? I just know that I lost my Super Bowl pick. And a little money.
So what did we learn from Super Bowl XLIII? Don't pick a Super Bowl team that can't run the ball or protect its QB to cover a seven-point spread. Don't cheer in the press box even if your son is making one of the most exhilarating Super Bowl plays ever. Don't listen to Cousin Sal on Super Bowl prop bets. Don't show your hands to John Madden if they're big and strong. Don't rush to call an exciting Super Bowl game "the greatest ever!" just because it's fun to say or write things like that. Don't ignore Mike Lombardi's Super Bowl advice. Don't try to figure out how this Cards team inexplicably caught fire, developed a heart and came within one defensive stand from winning four straight playoff games and a title, because the NFL is officially as unpredictable as March Madness and that's just the way it is. And don't go to a Super Bowl party if you write about sports for a living. You never know what might happen.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.