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Jon Kendle is Director of Archives and Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His biweekly columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the league’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.
The Arizona Cardinals hold the No. 2 seed in the NFC at 8-2 a little more than halfway through the 2021 National Football League season. While the probability is high the Cardinals will make the playoffs, a run to the Super Bowl is harder to predict. There are still many teams vying for the two spots in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.
It’s anyone’s guess who will be this year’s Cinderella story.
Let’s look at the 2008 NFL season and Super Bowl XLIII between the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was a matchup of the haves and have nots. The Steelers came into the game looking for their sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Cardinals, on the other hand, had never been to a Super Bowl and were looking to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for the first time.
The Steelers won the AFC North division with a 12-4 record. They never lost two games in a row the entire season and were led by the NFL’s No. 1 defense in both yards and points allowed.
The Cardinals had finished the regular season at 9-7, losing four of their last six and limping into the postseason with a Top 5 offense.
In the end, the game didn’t disappoint.
“Both teams played so well, but the gap between winning and losing is the smallest gap in sports,” John Madden stated in his postgame broadcast. “They were so close and played so hard. To me, this is the way football should be played. This is what the NFL is, and this was a heavyweight championship fight.”
The Steelers jumped out to an early 10-point lead on a Jeff Reed field goal and a 1-yard Gary Russell run. After Arizona cut the lead to three with a 1-yard pass from Kurt Warner to Ben Patrick, the fireworks began. With two minutes left in the half, the Cardinals marched down the field on the league’s best defense, looking to take a 14-10 lead into the locker room right before fans would watch the Boss’ spectacular halftime show. But as Warner took a three-step drop to throw a slant to Anquan Boldin, James Harrison – the league’s Defensive Player of the Year – stepped in front of the pass and rumbled his way 100 yards for a pick-six.
Coming out of halftime trailing 17-7, the Cardinals could have packed it in and not responded to adversity, but that’s not the way you make it to the Super Bowl. Following another Jeff Reed field goal, the Cardinals fought their way back with a defensive safety and two Larry Fitzgerald touchdown receptions. Fitzgerald’s second touchdown was a 64-yard catch and run that put Arizona up 23-20 with 2:37 left in the game, setting the stage for one of the most memorable finishes in Super Bowl history.
In the final two minutes of Super Bowl XLIII, “Big Ben” Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes played pitch and catch all the way down to the Arizona 6-yard line. With 42 seconds remaining and the weight of Pittsburgh’s sixth Super Bowl championship on their shoulders, Roethlisberger and Holmes hooked up one more time for a miraculous touchdown pass and catch.
“There was a play that was designed for me to get into the back corner of the end zone,” Holmes said after the game. “The defensive backs both came down on Hines (Ward), knowing that he was our go-to red zone guy. When they went to him, Ben held the ball for an extra second, and it gave me the opportunity.”
Final score: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23.