Morning After: Arizona Cardinals Come Oh-So-Close to Winning One of the Most Exciting Super Bowls Ever in Coach Ken Whisenhunt's Second Season


The biggest game in Arizona Cardinals history -- the second-biggest in Arizona sports history -- is over, and what can we take away from it?

Sure the Cardinals snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but they certainly had the odds-makers in Vegas sweating. For the fourth game in a row.

Though it's said that nobody remembers the loser in a Super Bowl, quarterback Kurt Warner and the Cardinals will be remembered for playing in one of the greatest games in Super Bowl history. And the loss in Tampa could be a prelude to a championship to come.

At the end of his team's 27-23 defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII, Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt seemed more deflated than his players, barely able to talk to NBC Sports. But his getting what was the biggest joke in the NFL to the game of games -- and getting almost a championship performance out of his players -- was an accomplishment for the ages.

And in his second season as a head coach.

Whisenhunt worked as Steelers offensive coordinator during their 2005 Super Bowl victory, and an upset of his old team would've been sweet after the Steelers went in another direction from him and now-Cardinals assistant head coach Russ Grimm, also a Pittsburgh assistant back then, when Coach Bill Cowher quit and Mike Tomlin was named to succeed him.

Few picked the Cardinals to win Sunday, and ultimately they didn't. But they gave the  Steelers -- they of the Terrible Towel-waving redneck fans and of the leading defense in the NFL -- all they could handle.

With about 2:47 left in the game, Arizona seemingly had it won, 23-20. They had come back from five drive-killing holding penalties and an interception on the Steelers' goal line that resulted in a length-of-the-field touchdown run by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison.

The score was 17-7 at halftime, after Harrison let the air out of the Cardinals and their fans with his unbelievable run. Unbelievable in the sense that no Cardinal could lay a hand on the 242-pound, lumbering bull until he was at the Arizona goal line and Larry Fitzgerald, et al knocked him down an inch into the end zone.

Kurt Warner inexplicably had thrown into coverage for the pick. Cardinals fans were ready for a touchdown, or at the very worst a field goal. It was first and goal on the one-yard-line. But instead of the Cards going up 14-10 or evening the game at 10-10, they went into halftime down by 10.

When the Steelers went up 20-17 after a 79-yard drive and a Jeff Reed field goal with 2:16 left in the third quarter, it seemed like Pittsburgh would mount a rout.

But back came Warner and the Cardinals. The 37-year-old quarterback engineered an eight-play, 87-yard drive in just under four minutes that ended with a patented leaping reception in the end zone by Fitzgerald. With Neil Rackers' point-after, it was 20-14.

The Steelers fizzled back on offense, resulting in a punt. The Cardinals offense drove to just past mid-field but stalled and had to punt themselves. Ben Graham's kick backed up the Steelers to their own two yard line. Arizona's defense hung tough and got a safety on Pittsburgh after center Justin Hartwig was caught holding in the end zone.

That made the score 20-16, and the Steelers had to kick to the Cardinals with 3:04 left in the game. What came next would've been unbelievable, if we hadn't watched Warner and Fitzgerald pull off phenominal plays all playoffs long.

It was a 64-yard, over-the-middle bullet by Warner that resulted in the best receiver in the NFL outrunning defenders to the end zone. With the PAT, the Cardinals were up 23-20 with 2:47 left. Suddenly, it was Cardinals fans screaming outrageously, as Steelers Nation sat sullenly. 

But the glee among Red Birds faithful was short-lived. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger proceeded to do what he's done all season -- move his team down field in a hurry and score. This time, it was on an eight-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a six-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, who made a finger-tip catch and landed with both toes in bounds as he fell forward out of the right side of the end zone.

It was the highlight-reel play of a game full of highlight-reel plays.

Pittsburgh kicked off and the Cardinals got the ball back, but with 42 second left, there wasn't much they could do. The game ended with a Warner pass attempt getting ruled a fumble and a recovery by Pittsburgh.

It was the Steelers' sixth Super Bowl win, more than any other team in the Super Bowl era.

Though the Cardinals won an NFL Championship in 1947, it was their first Super Bowl appearance. Sunday's game was only surpassed in Arizona professional sports history by the Diamondbacks victory over the Yankees in the 2001 World Series. 

Losing the Super Bowl's never a happy occasion, but there's no reason the Cardinals can't be back in the thick of the playoffs next year. They will be the best team in the NFC West again, which assures them a playoff spot. Coach Whisenhunt and his staff will be back and better, and they're sure to shore up some of the team's 2008 disabilities.

The question's whether Warner, whose contract expired with Sunday's game, will be back in Cardinals crimson next season. He'll be asking for lots of money, and there are plenty of teams who'll pay it (the Chicago Bears among the top interested parties). Speculation's that owners Bill and Michael Bidwill won't be willing to pay an aging quarterback a premium with backup Matt Leinart waiting for his chance to start.

Warner went 31 of 43 for 377 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 1 interception in Super Bowl XLIII, but he didn't win for the Bidwills. If he had, his return would be a safer bet.

One thing's for sure, after playing in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever, the Cardinals will no longer be a running joke. If Warner returns, they'll be considered one of the best teams in the league. Maybe even if he doesn't. Even in Vegas.      

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Rick Barrs
Contact: Rick Barrs