Commentary

Harrison's return was signature moment

James Harrison's remarkable interception return highlighted what might have been the greatest Super Bowl ever played, writes John Clayton.

Originally Published: February 1, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

James Harrison Scott A. Miller/US PresswireJames Harrison's amazing interception return changed the complexion of SB XLIII.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Super Bowl XLIII featured -- in my opinion -- the greatest play in Super Bowl history, but it also might have been the greatest game.

The Steelers' 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals had it all. James Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown on the last play of the first half was the greatest play in 43 Super Bowls because it caused a 14-point swing at a critical point in the game. Had the Cardinals scored a TD from the Steelers' 1-yard line, they would have led 14-10. Instead, Harrison's amazing return gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead. /p>

This game answered a lot of questions.

1. Offense rules: It's official. We now know for sure that the NFL is in the midst of an offensive era. They say defense wins championships, but the Colts and Giants won the previous two Super Bowls despite defenses that didn't rank among the top 10 in points allowed. Even though the Steelers boast the No. 1-ranked defense, they needed a 78-yard touchdown drive from Ben Roethlisberger in the final 2:37 to beat the Cardinals.

Kurt Warner passed for 377 yards and three touchdowns against a Steelers defense that didn't surrender 300 yards of total offense in 17 of Pittsburgh's previous 18 games. In 2008, the NFL scoring average of more than 44 points a game was the highest since 1965.

NFL GameDay: Super Bowl XLIII highlights

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The Steelers defeat the Cardinals 27-23 in one of the most memorable Super Bowls ever.

2. Hall of Fame cases: One of the biggest questions leading up to Super Bowl XLIII was whether Warner has done enough to draw Hall of Fame votes after his retirement. Well, Super Bowl XLIII may end up producing two Hall of Famers. Warner clinched all arguments that he is one of the greatest big-game quarterbacks in Super Bowl history. He's thrown for more than 300 yards in each of his three Super Bowls. In four postseason games in 2008, Warner passed for 1,147 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Roethlisberger also is knocking on the door of immortality. At 26, he has two Super Bowl rings and eight postseason victories. Only Tom Brady tops him for playoff victories during the first five years of a career. The scary part is that Big Ben has yet to hit his prime.

3. Play for the ages: Harrison's 100-yard interception return turned the game like no other play in the 43-year history of this game. David Tyree's great catch in Super Bowl XLII enabled the Giants to upset the Patriots, but Harrison's interception turned a sure scoring opportunity for the Cardinals into seven key points for the Steelers. The Steelers blitzed seven defenders on the play, and Harrison positioned himself perfectly and picked off Warner. With the clock expiring at the half, Harrison had to lunge over two potential tacklers to get the touchdown.

4. Late bloomer: Larry Fitzgerald is the most unstoppable wide receiver since Jerry Rice. In the first half, the Steelers -- mainly cornerback Ike Taylor -- held Fitzgerald to only one catch for 12 yards. Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley changed his strategy at halftime by letting Fitzgerald run more intermediate routes in the middle of the field. The change worked wonders, as Fitzgerald caught six passes for 115 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.

SB XLIII Can't-Miss Play: Run, Fitz, run

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Larry Fitzgerald takes off for a 64-yard go-ahead CardinalsTD reception.

5. Beating the blitz: The only other quarterback on the same planet as Brady and Peyton Manning against the blitz is Warner. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called a great game to contain Warner in the first half (135 passing yards). For most of the first half, LeBeau rushed only four on most passing plays, letting seven defenders drop into coverage. In the second half, LeBeau used more five-man rushes, and Warner threw for 222 yards against the league's top pass defense in 2008. Warner's the league's ultimate blitz-buster.

6. Hold that thought: Super Bowl XLIII had an inordinate amount of holding penalties. Terry McAulay's all-star crew called seven holding penalties, including four against the Cardinals. To put that in perspective, officials called 1.695 holding penalties a game in 2008 -- for both teams combined. Cardinals left tackle Mike Gandy had the worst day with three holding penalties.

7. Holmes coming of age: In 2008, Roddy White and Brandon Marshall emerged as star receivers; the Steelers' Santonio Holmes will be next year's star. Holmes matured into one of the league's big-play receivers during the playoffs, but his Super Bowl MVP performance put him on track for stardom.

Holmes had nine catches for 131 yards. He managed to keep two feet in the end zone after catching the game-winning 6-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left. It was one of the greatest catches in Super Bowl history. Holmes had a 40-yard reception to set up his game-winning TD and caught several screen passes against Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to move the chains in the first half.

SB XLIII Can't-Miss Play: Santonio seals the deal

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Santonio Holmes keeps his feet in bounds and hauls in the game-winner in SB XLIII.

8. No time to rest: Even though the Steelers won their second Super Bowl in four years, they have a lot of work to do in the offseason. They have to get better along the offensive line. Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett dominated right guard Darnell Stapleton. Expect the Steelers to draft blockers in high rounds over the next two years.

9. Nip tuck rule in the bud: The NFL needs to junk the "tuck rule." In the third quarter, Warner appeared to be sacked by James Farrior as the Cardinals QB was throwing the ball. Officials on the field ruled the play a fumble, but Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt challenged -- and upon review, it was overturned and called an incomplete pass. The "tuck rule" mandates that the ball has to come to the passer's belt buckle before coming out in order for it to be ruled a fumble. How can that happen when Warner is falling as he was hit with the ball held high in the air? If it looks like a fumble, it should be a fumble.

10. Warner unsure about future: After the game, we learned Warner took the loss hard and he isn't sure what he wants to do with his future. That has to be scary for the Cardinals. "I don't know," the unsigned Warner said of his future. "There are a lot of emotions that go into a decision like that. I don't want to make any emotional decisions." At training camp before the '08 season, Warner said he wanted to play two more years. The Cardinals better convince him to stay. He's too good to lose.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer