This is part two of our series The Two Best Super Bowls, Ranked
#1 Super Bowl 43
Most of the time, football teams make the Super Bowl because they played top-notch football from September to January. There are only sixteen games in an NFL season, so there really isn’t time for teams to play poorly for a long stretch of games. When the playoffs start, if you’ve got money riding on which teams will make it and which won’t, save yourself some time and write off teams that won fewer than 11 games. In the last 17 Super Bowls, contested by 34 teams, 29 of them won at least 11 games.
When a team gets into the Super Bowl with a 9-7 record, it means they’ve won three straight playoff games to get into the Super Bowl. Although the 2008 Arizona Cardinals did manage to win three in a row during the season, that modest accomplishment was their high point. In a home-heavy schedule that featured four opponents that would make the playoffs, the Cardinals slumped badly down the stretch, losing four of their last six games by a total of 97 points. They did win their division, but they had the worst record of any NFC playoff team. Unlike the legendary squads that played in Super Bowl 25, these Cardinals weren’t nearly as stacked. Hall of Famer Kurt Warner was the trigger man under center, and his favorite target was future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. It was these two men, Fitzgerald in particular, that paced the Cardinals in their three playoff wins. A 9-7 team had never before reached a Super Bowl, and it was also the first-ever Super Bowl appearance in the largely forgettable history of the Cardinals.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the other hand, were long accustomed to championship football. They won four Super Bowls in six seasons from 1974 to 1979. Just three years prior, the Steelers won a record-tying fifth Super Bowl, and behind stars like QB Ben Roethlisberger, WR Hines Ward, LB James Harrison and S Troy Polamalu, the Steelers went 12-4 en route to their 7th Super Bowl appearance. If Super Bowl 25 was a clash of Fire and Ice, Super Bowl 43 was a classic David vs. Goliath matchup.
LA Chargers 28 @ Dallas 6 F (11/23)
Buffalo @ Kansas City – Switching QBs every week can’t be good for business
Denver @ Oakland – At this point, Denver’s 2018 draft priority ought to be clear
Jennifer Hudson belted out a great rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner…which someone recorded and played back through the stadium speakers before the game. So the main event can have missed kicks and bungled snaps and turnovers, but don’t you guys DARE miss one stinkin’ note before the game. Rubbish.
Houston @ Baltimore – how’s two in a row sound, OMWC?
Green Bay @ Pittsburgh – pencil the Steelers in for Super Bowl 52
Cleveland @ Cincinnati – gotta pick somebody, right?
The first quarter was dominated by the Steelers. They held the ball for 12:27 and outgained the Cardinals 135 to 3. True, the only points in the quarter were a Steelers field goal, but they were just five yards from paydirt as the quarter drew to a close. Ben Roethlisberger was in fine form to start the game, particularly on this 3rd-and-10 play.
Pittsburgh 3, Arizona 0
Tennessee @ Indianapolis – Should be a close one
Jacksonville @ Arizona – “Sacksonville” vs. a backup QB ought to be ugly
Houston @ Baltimore
After the Steelers finished off their drive from the end of first quarter (11 plays, 69 yards, 7:12), the Cardinals got the ball back with a minute gone by in the second quarter, trailing 10-0. They answered the Steelers’ long touchdown drive with one of their own (9 plays, 83 yards, 5:12), and the battle was joined. The teams swapped punts, then things got a little crazy.
What an opportunity for the Cardinals! Down 10-0 at one point, outplayed for a majority of the game thus far, and now creating a turnover just 33 yards from the end zone? This team may have finished 9-7, but they clearly knew how to hang in through adversity. Four completions later, the Cardinals were just three yards away from a four-point lead, halfway through their first Super Bowl.
Unbelievable. The Cardinals were poised to at least tie the game with a chip shot field goal; instead, they were in the same position they were facing 14 minutes prior. Maybe the 2014 Seahawks should have watched this game prior to their last Super Bowl appearance; throwing anything but an outside route inside the five-yard line seems to be a bad idea in Super Bowls.
Pittsburgh 17, Arizona 7
Miami @ New England – the last time Miami won the Super Bowl, Tom Brady was -3
Carolina @ NY Jets – the Jets will return to their “just good enough to lose a close one” ways
Buffalo @ Kansas City
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were the halftime performers, and I think this piece is all the commentary necessary about BS&ESB. (Trigger Warning: Deadspin)
Seattle @ San Francisco – Seattle injuries are catching up to them, but not this week
New Orleans @ LA Rams – the win streak stops here
Jacksonville @ Arizona
It was a near-repeat of the first quarter: Pittsburgh controls the clock and manages a field goal. Through three quarters, the Cardinals had achieved little offensively. But defensively…that was different. The defense had only surrendered 13 points, and on two occasions bent-but-didn’t-break. There was the first quarter field goal where the Steelers drove 71 yards on 9 plays, consumed 5:15 on the clock, but got no further than the one-yard line. The second field goal-hold was an even more impressive display by the Cardinal defense, warts and all.
The drive began on the Steeler 18. First play, run stuffed for -3 yards. Second play, six-yard completion, but a 15-yard facemask gave the Steelers a fresh set of downs. Three more plays, another first down. Next play: incomplete pass, but another 15-yard roughing the passer gave the Steelers another set of downs. So far, that’s 47 yards on the drive, 30 by penalty. Then the Steeler offense managed a couple of chunk plays in amongst some stuffed runs and incomplete passes. After the last incomplete pass, it was fourth and goal from the nine. Jeff Reed made a 27-yard field goal…then the Cardinals committed a third personal foul penalty.
Incredibly, after everything that had occurred, both throughout the game and during this drive, the Cardinals defense held again, at last without a penalty. Reed’s next field goal attempt was five yards shorter, and also good.
Pittsburgh 20, Arizona 7
Minnesota 30 @ Detroit 23 F (11\23)
Chicago @ Philadephia – the Bears are a year away at least
Green Bay @ Pittsburgh
FOURTH QUARTER, part one
A Cardinal drive that began late in the third quarter stalled after six plays. Through 46:19, the Cardinals had managed just 7 points. Their defense, called upon to keep the game close all night, held yet again. The Steelers went three-and-out, punting the ball to the Cardinals with 11:30 left. At last, with no margin for error, the Cardinals got back into the end zone, covering 87 yards in 8 plays in 4 minutes. On the ensuing possession, the Cardinals defense again forced a three-and-out. They couldn’t take advantage on offense, however, punting the ball away after eight plays. It was now Pittsburgh’s turn to hurt themselves via penalty, and a personal foul placed the ball at the one-yard line. On third down, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes for 19 yards…only, the Steelers committed a holding penalty in their own end zone. Safety!
Pittsburgh 20, Arizona 16
Tampa Bay @ Atlanta – The Falcons are finally getting on track; too little, too late?
Carolina @ NY Jets
New Orleans @ LA Rams
FOURTH QUARTER, part two
Pittsburgh’s free kick after the safety was returned to the Cardinal 36. On first down, Kurt Warner threw an incomplete pass. On second down, this happened.
Incredible. The Cardinals had been playing from behind all game long. Their offense had been mostly stymied for three quarters. They had faced setback after setback along the way. Competitive resilience is the hallmark of champions, and the Cardinals showed that, despite whatever flaws they possessed, they had it. The touchdown was Fitzgerald’s second of the quarter, and it was the signature play of a postseason for the ages. He set records for receptions, yards, and touchdown catches in a single playoff.
When Pittsburgh regained possession at their own 22 yard line, they had two timeouts, the two-minute warning, and 2:30 left, needing only a field goal to tie the game. But they faced a Cardinal defense that had shut them down for three straight series; all the momentum was on the Arizona side of the ball.
Ben Roethlisberger went to work. After an offensive holding penalty on first down, he scrambled out of danger near his own endzone for a 14-yard completion. That play, plus two more completions, moved the Steelers ahead 38 yards; he then added four more on a run of his own. Timeout Pittsburgh, 1:02, ball at the Arizona 46.
Santonio Holmes absolutely tortured the Cardinals on the final drive. He already had 27 yards on two catches; after the timeout, he caught an 11-yard pass, then spun and dashed all the way down to the six-yard line, making it a 40-yard reception. Timeout Steelers. They were now in chip shot field goal range with 49 seconds left.
LA Chargers 28 @ Dallas 6 F (11/23)
NY Giants 30 @ Washington 20 F (11/23)
Chicago @ Philadelphia
Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23
Unlike Super Bowl 25, there’s a lot less history to draw on for this game. Six HOFers played in Super Bowl 25; some players in Super Bowl 43 are still active today. Only one player from 43 is in the HOF (Kurt Warner), but Larry Fitzgerald, Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu all figure to get in fairly easily.
This game was an amazing experience. There were defensive plays, defensive stands, superb quarterback play, shocking turnovers, crushing penalties, huge swings in momentum…the Patriots had a greater comeback a year ago. There have been better individual performances. There were Super Bowls with more lead changes. But this Super Bowl had a little of everything, and both teams performed admirably. It’s my choice for the best Super Bowl of all time, and this opinion doubles as a fact.
Week Eleven: 7-6