Steelers' winning drive in Super Bowl XLIII still haunts Cardinals

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- After avoiding it for six months, Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt will watch a replay of his team's Super Bowl XLIII loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Whisenhunt said he planned to view the tape this weekend as part of his preparations for Arizona's Thursday night preseason opener at Pittsburgh. But he acknowledged that the exercise might stir up some painful memories -- and that's why he has waited this long to watch the game again.

"They've been playing it on NFL Network, so I've seen a lot of the clips, and it brings back a lot of the things that I remember from it," Whisenhunt said. "And now it is a little further removed."

For many Cardinals players and coaches, the most haunting part of that tape is the final minutes. Depending on one's perspective, the Steelers put together one of the more memorable winning drives in Super Bowl history or the Cardinals' defense broke down and let the game slip away from them.

"It makes all of us sick to our stomach defensively," said Cardinals defensive coordinator Bill Davis, who was the linebackers coach at the Super Bowl. "I mean, there's a knot in my gut when you just bring it up right now. The whole defense, collectively, we don't talk about it much."

Cardinals strong safety Adrian Wilson was blunt when asked about what he remembers about his first Super Bowl.

"I think (about) the mistakes on the last drive for the defense," Wilson said this week. "Defensively, we had a lot of breakdowns. We didn't play winning football on the last drive. I think it came back and it bit us on our butt."

The Steelers' final drive might have spelled the end for former defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, whom the Cardinals fired within a week after the loss. However, it might be unfair to blame the defense, which scored a safety and gave up just 13 points in the first 59 minutes. The Cardinals' potent offense mustered only one touchdown before two fourth-quarter scores, including a 64-yard pass from Kurt Warner to Larry Fitzgerald to give Arizona its first lead, 23-20, with 2:37 to play.

The Cardinals' defense couldn't protect that lead, but Whisenhunt refused to pin the loss on the unit.

"The last drive, for me, is not the only thing in that game that made a difference," he said. "Not at all. I don't consider that the reason that we didn't win the Super Bowl. That was just one of many factors. I mean, there's always a bunch of other plays in the game that could have made the difference."

The biggest play was the acrobatic, winning touchdown catch by Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes, the game's MVP. But the Cardinals' defenders and coaches think back to the plays that led up to it.

After the Steelers took the ball at their own 22-yard line with 2:37 to play, a holding penalty on first down left them facing a first-and-20 at the 12. That's where the Cardinals needed to bottle up the Steelers, but they watched Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger find Holmes for 14 yards on first down and 13 more on third-and-6.

Those completions revived the Steelers. Three plays later, Roethlisberger hit Holmes for 40 yards, giving Pittsburgh a first-and-goal at the Arizona 6.

Two plays later, Roethlisberger hit Holmes in the end zone. The touchdown was upheld on a replay challenge, and the Steelers suddenly led 27-23.

"We were excited about that drive," Davis said. "I knew we were going to stop them. But one or two plays later, you turn around and the scoreboard's got the wrong numbers on it."

The drive officially covered 78 yards -- 88 yards in reality -- in eight plays and 2:02.

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Although they knew the Steelers would throw the ball on every down, the Cardinals failed to sack Roethlisberger, who was 5-of-7 passing on the march. Arizona also couldn't corral Holmes, who caught four passes on the drive.

"We didn't finish the way we should have," Cardinals free safety Antrel Rolle said. "It was in our hands. (The defense) was in the perfect call, but we didn't execute the call right."

Six months have passed since the Super Bowl, and a promising new season beckons as the Cardinals practice among the tall pines at their training camp at Northern Arizona University. But the memories of the Steelers' final drive persist.

Unlike Whisenhunt, Davis has watched film of the Super Bowl, and he doesn't want to see it again.

"I don't know if I can stomach it one more time," he said.

Wilson also has reviewed game film and said he has tried to look for ways to improve instead of dwelling on the breakdowns.

"We learned a lot of valuable lessons in that last drive, period, because we did a lot of things wrong," Wilson said. "We didn't play the techniques that we'd been playing throughout the playoffs on that last drive. Whenever the game's on the line like that, you have to buckle down."

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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