For weeks, they had ridden a wave of unexpected fortune to the NFL's championship game, collecting bandwagon love and soaking in all the fun that came with it. Yet, when it was finally over, the result left them doubled over with regret.
Losing 27-23 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, after a dazzling fourth-quarter rally Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, sapped Arizona of its never-been-here-before innocence. The team that few believed had a chance after thinking it would never get here in the first place proved itself to be every bit worthy.
However, the Super Bowl first-timer Cardinals made neophyte mistakes that will make the sting of the loss even harder to take. Penalties (11 for 106 yards), two turnovers (including quarterback Kurt Warner's interception that was returned 100 yards for a touchdown by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison) and the failure to make one stop on the Steelers' final drive that ended with a spectacular winning catch by Santonio Holmes are warts that will overshadow a game performance.
"The game had a lot of intensity," Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said upon being asked about the abundance of penalties that stalled drives on offense and extended some on defense. "There were a lot of emotions going through the game. Everybody wanted to put their foot down and let everybody know there are no punks on either side of the ball."
Added Warner: "You can't get to these games and make mistakes and expect to be able to overcome them all. It's unfortunate we didn't play our best game."
What the Cardinals were trying to say was that maybe the lights finally got bright, the stadium appeared a little more crowded and the moment was bigger than expected. Keep in mind, this is a franchise that had never played in a Super Bowl, and these are players who've mostly known losing, albeit in relative obscurity because their history has spawned barely a ripple of relevance.
It took just three offensive plays for left tackle Mike Gandy to be called for the first of his three holding penalties. The play after Gandy was flagged for the first time, Warner fumbled the ball, but running back Edgerrin James recovered it, only to have the drive eventually end with a punt. Before the Cardinals got the ball back again, they were down 10-0.
"I really don't know what happened," Arizona safety Antrel Rolle said. "We beat ourselves. Pittsburgh's a great team, hands down, but we could have won this game. We gave them way more opportunities than we should have."
When the Cardinals finally steadied themselves in the first half, they moved the ball on the NFL's top defense, and they did it without their main offensive weapon, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who was rendered obsolete. Pittsburgh rolled coverages Fitzgerald's way, bracketing him with "over-under" schemes in which there were always defenders sandwiching him. In addition, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu occasionally played press coverage on him, re-routing Fitzgerald at the line of scrimmage.
Arizona pulled within three points early in the second quarter after staging a nine-play, 83-yard drive that ended with Warner hitting tight end Ben Patrick -- who was called for holding earlier in the drive -- on a 1-yard touchdown pass.
The manner in which the Cardinals bounced back seemed to catch everyone's attention, especially the Steelers, who unraveled some offensively and had their final drive of the first half end with Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepting a tipped Ben Roethlisberger pass and giving his team the ball at Pittsburgh's 34.
In driving to the Steelers' 1-yard line, the Cardinals revisited the willful performances in each of their previous three playoff games, when they overcame deficits against the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles. Arizona looked confident and poised and was set to close the half with the lead until Harrison, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, made one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.
Lined up on the line of scrimmage opposite Gandy, to Warner's left, Harrison feigned a pass rush and dropped two steps into coverage, in front of wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who had run a crossing, pick route with Fitzgerald. Harrison then proceeded to race up the Cardinals' sideline, getting blocks from teammates and avoiding faint attempts at tackles to give the Steelers a 17-7 lead as time expired in the second quarter.
It was a 14-point swing that seemed too large on the scoreboard and too mentally jarring for any team to come back from, let alone this Arizona squad that had been schizophrenic -- and overwhelmed -- in the first half.
The 25-minute extended halftime, courtesy of a performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, allowed the Cardinals to mentally regroup -- or so they thought, players said.
By the time the third quarter was over, they were down 20-7, with Pittsburgh adding a field goal on a 16-play drive that was kept alive by Arizona committing facemask, roughing-the-passer and unnecessary-roughness penalties. That the Steelers were held to just a field goal actually was a victory for the Cardinals.
Arizona didn't only seem overmatched by its foe but also by the enormity of nerves. The story of the Cardinals posing as threats was starting to be written -- especially since the offense played into the Steelers' hands by repeatedly throwing underneath, avoiding Fitzgerald. There also was the feeling that Pittsburgh was playing a few additional players dressed in black-and-white-striped uniforms.
"I'm not going to comment on that," Fitzgerald said about the officiating. "I'm already sad with the defeat. I don't need the NFL to go into my pocket now for commenting on the officiating. I'm not going to touch that."
It wasn't until the clock finally became as much of a threat as the Steelers that the Cardinals made a radical offensive switch. They went to no huddle sets, where they spread out Pittsburgh with four receivers, put Fitzgerald in motion and let the play clock nearly expire before play calls and adjustments were made at the line of scrimmage.
The Steelers couldn't counter in time, and the Cardinals found their way -- and Fitzgerald, who had just one catch after three quarters. On the first series that Arizona made the switch, Warner completed all eight passes he threw -- four to Fitzgerald -- with the final a 1-yard leaping fade over Pittsburgh cornerback Ike Taylor for the score.
The defense, led by Dockett, turned Steelers-like, roughed up Pittsburgh and helped narrow the deficit to 20-16 by forcing a safety. Then it happened: Warner connected with Fitzgerald on a 64-yard catch-and-run that put Arizona ahead 23-20. The seas of yellow Terrible Towels turned in a puddle. The clock showed just under three minutes, and a watershed change of emotions surfaced.
Could this really be happening?
Not on third-and-6, when Roethlisberger found Holmes for a 13-yard completion. Not three plays later, when they connected again, this time for a 40-yard gain that advanced the ball to Arizona's 6 with 48 seconds remaining.
On first-and-goal, Roethlisberger barely missed Holmes in the left corner of the end zone against zone coverage in which Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Aaron Francisco were one step late in arriving. The Steelers ran the same play against the same coverage with the same personnel to the right corner of the end zone on their next snap. The defenders were one step late again.
"When Ben Roethlisberger started scrambling, my eyes were bad, and I got taken out of my zone," said Rodgers-Cromartie, a rookie.
With 35 seconds left, Warner had one more shot to add to his lore, which already included two other Super Bowls that came down to the final minute -- Super Bowls XXXVIand XXXIV with the St. Louis Rams. Yet, as fate would have it, the ball was batted out of his hands for a fumble that Pittsburgh recovered.
So Warner's 377-yard, three-touchdown performance, Dockett's two-sack game, and Fitzgerald's seven-catch, 127-yard, late-game bonanza are now footnotes. Warner left the stadium contemplating retirement, while Fitzgerald lamented not being found on the times he was open before things broke free in the fourth quarter.
Winning the NFC West and conference title was nice, players said. However, safety Adrian Wilson added that not finishing the deal made it all feel wasted.