By Greg Garber
DETROIT -- The Pittsburgh Steelers were the overwhelming sentimental Super Bowl XL favorites, both here and in Las Vegas, but for better than three quarters, the Seattle Seahawks had Pittsburgh engaged in a serious football game.
Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had just thrown a boneheaded interception, but the Steelers were still clinging to a tenuous 14-10 fourth-quarter lead when they busted out a trick play that, considering its place in this ultimate game, will outstrip the Music City Miracle.
With the ball on Seattle's 43-yard line, Ben Roethlisberger handed off to Willie Parker, who in turn handed the ball to wide receiver Randle El, who was streaking right. Meanwhile, Ward, the game's MVP, had loped downfield into the clear, and Randle El -- a record-setting quarterback at Indiana -- hit Ward in stride for a 43-yard touchdown with 9:04 left in the game.
The Steelers have a penchant for trick plays; Ward, who also played quarterback in college, and Randle El give Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt uncommon flexibility. This time, it was a reverse pass the Steelers had practiced religiously for most of the year, and pulled out in the biggest moment in the biggest game of the season.
"The guys get tired of practicing those plays because we never call them," said Whisenhunt, who might be the next head coach of the Oakland Raiders. "They were in the right defense, and it felt like the right time."
Thus, Pittsburgh prevailed in a game that was, overwhelmingly, a home game for the Steelers. The fanatics wearing gold and black and waving their Terrible Towels outnumbered their Seahawks counterparts by a ratio somewhere beyond 25-to-1.
And so, all those poignant things Steelers fans ached for came to pass:
• Running back Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, born and raised here in the Motor City, was not a significant factor in the game. But in what was his final game, Bettis won the first Vince Lombardi Trophy of his 13-year career.
"It's been an incredible ride," Bettis said. "I played this game to win a championship. I'm a champion, and I think the Bus' last stop is here in Detroit."
• Roethlisberger, who in the misery of last year's AFC championship loss to New England promised Bettis a trip back home to Detroit if he returned for another season, became the youngest quarterback (23) to win the Super Bowl. He did not play particularly well -- he only completed two more passes than the number of times he ran (seven), but his team won the game.
"We got the win, and that's all that matters," Roethlisberger said. "It was absolutely awesome to come up here and win one for Jerome."
• Head coach Bill Cowher, who had made the playoffs 10 times in 14 seasons, finally won his first Super Bowl and followed through on his driving goal to hand owner Dan Rooney that sterling silver trophy.
"It's surreal right now," Cowher said. "It is a rewarding feeling to give that trophy to Mr. Rooney. That's what he brought me here to do. It really does complete a void that's been there."
Technically, this was Pittsburgh's fifth Super Bowl victory -- tying the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys for the league's highest total -- but it feels like a different era. This one came more than a quarter century after the Steelers won four Super Bowls in a span of six seasons from 1974 to 1979.
"It's wonderful," Rooney said. "We're so thrilled to bring that back to Pittsburgh."
The two plays of the game were, appropriately, Super Bowl record breakers.
Parker's 75-yard touchdown run -- the longest in Super Bowl history -- 22 seconds into the second half proved to be the game-winning score. Seattle defensive back Kelly Herndon's 76-yard interception return was also the longest play of its kind in the 40-year history of Super Bowls, and it brought the Seahawks back into the game midway through the third quarter.
Seattle, a franchise with low national visibility that operates in the remote Pacific Northwest, almost 700 miles from the nearest NFL team, competed exceptionally well. In the end, the Seahawks just couldn't overcome the odds that were stacked high against them.
Hasselbeck completed 26 of 49 passes for 273 yards, with one touchdown and one interception. Shaun Alexander -- who was the league's leading rusher this season and set a record for touchdowns -- had decent numbers (20 carries, 95 yards) but did not find the end zone.
The Seahawks struck first with a 47-yard field goal by Josh Brown with 22 seconds left in the first quarter -- but it could have been worse for the Steelers. Earlier, Hasselbeck appeared to hit Darrell Jackson with a 17-yard touchdown pass, but officials detected a slight (very slight) push off by Jackson on free safety Chris Hope in the end zone. The touchdown was recalled on the pass interference call, and the Steelers ended up in only a 3-0 hole.
When the quarter ended, Jackson had caught five passes for 50 yards -- 33 more than the Steelers' entire offense. Roethlisberger was an unsteady 1-for-5 for 1 yard.
It was a modest little play at the time, but when Steelers cornerback Deshea Townsend cut down Seattle fullback Mack Strong, leaving him 6 inches short of a first down on a swing pass, the game found an equilibrium. The Seahawks had dominated time of possession to that point, and Roethlisberger had looked, well, like the 23-year-old quarterback he is. The Steelers' previous possession had ended on the Seattle 17-yard line when Roethlisberger threw an ill-advised pass intended for Randle El that was intercepted by Seahawks strong safety Michael Boulware.
But on the ensuing drive, Roethlisberger found his game -- by finding his feet. On third-and-6 at the Steelers' 45, Roethlisberger pulled the ball down and ducked under a defender before spotting Ward. He tossed a shovel pass to his favorite receiver, and the play was good for 12 yards. Two plays later, Cedrick Wilson found a seam downfield and caught a Roethlisberger pass for another 20 yards.
The biggest play of the first half was a ludicrous third-and-28 at the Seattle 40. Common sense dictated a safe 10-yard play that would bring the Steelers into comfortable field goal range. When Roethlisberger was flushed out of the pocket, he seemed on the verge of scrambling that distance but pulled up just inches short of the line of scrimmage, as though it were an invisible canine fence, ran sideways and spotted Ward streaking downfield. Roethlisberger heaved it across the field, and Ward beat Boulware to the ball. It was a 37-yard play, all the way down to the 3-yard line.
After two handoffs to Bettis left Pittsburgh 1 yard short, Roethlisberger, rolling left, faked a pitch to Bettis but kept the ball himself. He cut back toward the middle and leaped toward the end zone, where he was met by linebacker D.D. Lewis. The play was ruled a touchdown, and replays suggested the ball had penetrated the plane of the goal line before Lewis knocked Roethlisberger back. With 1:55 left in the half, the Steelers had their first lead, 7-3.
The pro-Steelers crowd that had been so docile for most of the half awakened with a deafening roar. And for the first time, you sensed that Seattle had squandered its decisive territorial advantage.
When the half ended at 7-3, it was confirmed. Mike Holmgren's offenses are usually surgically crisp, particularly in the final moments. With Hasselbeck looking disoriented, the Seahawks lost critical seconds as they worked their way down the field. They reached the Steelers' 40-yard line with 48 seconds left but couldn't score.
It was a tight, gnarly little half, but after a thundering, palate-cleansing performance by the Rolling Stones, the pace quickened. Maybe Mick Jagger should have sung "Start Me Up" before the game.
The game was still in reach when the Steelers started the second half on their 25-yard line. But after a Roethlisberger-to-Ward pass fell incomplete, Parker stunned the Seahawks. The second-year undrafted free agent took a handoff and, after a crushing block by guard Alan Faneca -- and a diving whiff by Boulware -- disappeared. The play did not have the artistic sensibility of Marcus Allen's stop-and-go, left-right 74-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XVIII, but it was 1 yard longer. So, Parker's swift, clean run (no one touched him once he crossed the 50), goes into the record books as the Super Bowl's longest.
That made it 14-3. The Terrible Towels were out, and the volume soared beyond anything the Stones had achieved minutes before.
The Seahawks were in trouble, and they oozed into field goal range; a successful kick would have left them in a one-possession game. Brown's 50-yard attempt nearly grazed the left upright, but on the outside.
Pittsburgh was in position to put Seattle six feet under, but Roethlisberger suffered a brain cramp. This error in judgment completely changed the complexion of the game. On a critical third-and-goal at the Seattle 7-yard line, he underthrew Wilson and defensive back Herndon snatched it. Herndon raced down the field with an entourage, and he probably would have scored a touchdown if not for Ward's tackle. The 76-yard return was, almost laughably, another fairly spectacular Super Bowl record in a span of seven minutes.
Instead of a worst-case scenario lead of 17-3 from Pittsburgh's perspective, it was about to be a four-point game. Tight end Jerramy Stevens, who engaged Steelers linebacker Joey Porter in a verbal skirmish in the week leading up to the game, had been noticeably tentative to that point, with a pair of dropped balls. But he reeled in a 16-yard touchdown catch when Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu was the victim of a subtle pick play by Seattle.
Suddenly -- very suddenly -- it was a game. The Seahawks trailed only 14-10 with 6:45 left in the third quarter.
Seattle was closing in on the end zone when Hasselbeck slipped into his Roethlisberger impersonation. He inexplicably floated a ball over the head of Jackson and Taylor, faced with his second potential interception, caught this one.
A few minutes later, the Steelers pulled out the last gadget play and the game was over.
The Bus was finally home, and a home crowd reveled in his joy.
"It's been an incredible ride," Bettis said. "I came back to win a championship, and now I have to bid farewell."