Monday, February 02, 2009

XLIII Lives Up To The Hype, And Then Some

Now THIS one was really Super.

It used to be, in the earlier days of the NFL-AFL Championship Game, which soon became known as the Super Bowl, that professional football's supposedly finest hour was instead 15 minutes of garish fame. Seemingly decent matchups on parchment were then played on a "Super Sunday" -- in January, once upon a time -- and not long after halftime, you were wondering what the other two channels were showing. Sometimes you wondered midway through the second quarter.

The Super Bowls of the 1970s and most of the 1980s were dog games. The parties were always better.

But the Super Bowl seems to be mimicking fine wine; it's getting better as it ages.

The game looks pretty good for XLIII. Doesn't look a day over XXX.

Yesterday the Arizona Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers didn't just play a football game -- they collaborated and co-authored some of the finest theater the NFL has ever put on.

This might have been the best of the XLIII -- and last year's wasn't anything to sneeze at, if you recall.

This one had it all: a 100-yard interception return -- by a defensive lineman; flashy air attacks; a safety; a long punt return; outstanding individual efforts; a comeback and some lead changes; and more video reviews than an EA Games message board.

You could put a dozen or so of the previous Super Bowls together, back in the day, and still not come up with the drama that filled yesterday's classic.

We've been getting used to close, tight ballgames the older the game gets.

A quick check of recent history shows that the contests began getting snug in the late-1990s, as a rule. There was the game-saving tackle at the one-yard-line in Super Bowl XXXIV, that clinched the game for the St. Louis Rams. Adam Vinatieri's game-winning field goal a couple years after that. The Patriots' nail-biter over the Eagles in 2005. The Jerome Bettis Story in Detroit. And last year's toppling of the undefeated Pats, thanks to a super-human catch by David Tyree.

But this -- this was something else.

I feel for the Cardinals fans this morning. They sat about two-and-a-half minutes away from probably the most improbable Super Bowl championship in history, their 9-7 team battling back from a 20-7 deficit to take a brief 23-20 lead. It was tantalizingly close for them. No NFL championships since 1947. That's LXI years, and some change.

But the Steelers showed that big game moxie of theirs, and managed to wrangle themselves into at least field goal position in the final minute.

My first reaction when I saw Santonio Holmes' catch in the far corner of the end zone on second down and goal was that he was clearly out of bounds. Clearly. No way could he have collapsed onto the turf, that far past the white line, and have been in fair play when he caught the football.

But the field judge's arms went up in the "touchdown" signal, and I thought, "Surely this will be overruled by the trusty video review."

Then I saw the first of the half dozen or so replays.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Holmes did, indeed, make a legal catch. Falling forward, his tippy toes tapping against the end zone grass, ball firmly in his possession. Legal. Fair and square. And brilliant. I didn't need more than a couple looks to confirm it. The other ten times it was shown -- those were just to marvel at.

If they call Dwight Clark's grab in the 1981-82 NFC Championship Game "The Catch", then this was "THE Catch."

It was also The Throw.

As with Joe Montana, who waited until the last possible moment before flicking the ball toward the back of the end zone, with Dallas Cowboys pass rushers about to engulf him, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger made himself quite a toss, too. He looked left, then scrambled slightly to his right, then spotted Holmes. Did I mention that there were also three Cardinals pass defenders in Holmes's personal space?

No matter. Big Ben zipped one of those "safe" passes -- the kind that cannot be intercepted, only incomplete. But he zipped it so it could also be complete, given the proper ballet dancer to accompany it. And Holmes filled that role, big time.

Prior to Holmes's grab, the most famous Steelers reception might be the tumbling-to-the-ground, bounce-off-the-defender gem that Lynn Swann made in Super Bowl X. Doubtless that you've seen that one a hundred times, always in slow motion, thanks to NFL Films. But Swann's catch came in the middle acts; Holmes made his play in the game's climax. Sorry, Lynn, but Santonio's play supersedes yours.

Not that the Steelers fans care. They got their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy, the most of any franchise. They're 6-1 on Super Sunday -- January and February, combined. Day games and night games combined. The Cardinals fall to 0-1. They still have won as many Super Bowls as the Lions. But not without a fight, and not without honor. If there ever was a game in which it was truly a shame to have a loser, it was yesterday's.


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