TAMPA, Fla. — He has worn No. 13 his entire NFL career to show his spirituality defies superstition, but Kurt Warner will forever be bewitched by Super Bowl ghosts.
Warner said last week that he has remained haunted by the last-second 20-17 loss his St. Louis Rams suffered against New England seven years ago.
But this 27-23 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday in Raymond James Stadium, this was worse.
The game was a beauty, easily, a worthy successor to last year’s New York Giants upset of New England, and then some.
But oh, how it will pain the quarterback from Cedar Rapids Regis, UNI and the Iowa Barnstormers, who came 35 seconds from putting a happy ending on one of sports’ great individual comeback tales.
Warner was Hall of Fame-great in the fourth-quarter, amassing 224 of his 377 passing yards and two of his three touchdown passes in the period. He helped bring the Arizona Cardinals back from a semi-catatonic state, back from a 20-7 hole Warner helped dig with the most ill-fated 1-yard pass in pro football history.
That toss, which Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison almost-impossibly returned 100 yards for a touchdown, was about to become little more than Super Bowl trivia as the longest scoring play ever in a Super Bowl. Or so it seemed.
With 2:37 left in the game, Warner hooked up with the great Larry Fitzgerald for a 64-yard touchdown to give the Cardinals a 23-20 lead, its first advantage of the day.
With Warner running a no-huddle offense and throwing 10 straight completions in one stretch, the Cardinals put three quarters of frustration in their rearview mirrors. They seemed on the cusp of finishing one of the most unlikely championship runs in American pro sports history.
But the Steelers then played like a franchise that has now won more Super Bowls (six) than any of the other 31 NFL teams.
Ben Roethlisberger, winner of two world titles at age 26, teamed with Santonio Holmes on a 40-yard pass to let Pittsburgh go for a touchdown instead of potential game-tying field goal, then hit Holmes two plays later for the game-winner with :35 to go.
Holmes, who admits he dealt drugs in Belle Glade, Fla., as a youth, got all 10 of his tiptoes in the back right corner of the end zone with the ball in his grasp.
He barely stuck a landing in fair territory that would have impressed Shawn Johnson.
Warner and the Arizona offense got the ball back with 29 seconds left, needing to take his team 77 yards to erase its 27-23 deficit. The Cardinals got to the Pittsburgh 44 with :15 and no timeouts remaining, then Warner was sacked and fumbled the ball away in the final few seconds.
They’ll talk about the Holmes touchdown catch, one of the biggest in — here comes a superlative again — Super Bowl lore. It sealed the game’s Most Valuable Player award for the third-year pro from Ohio State, and may have snatched it from Warner.
But just as big was the one 71-year-old Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau called “the greatest single defensive play in Super Bowl history.”
Down 10-7, Arizona had a first-and-goal at the Steelers 1 with :18 left in the first-half. Out of timeouts, the Cardinals had no choice but to pass, then go for a field goal if they didn’t get a TD toss.
“I thought I had just 1-on-1 on the outside,” Warner said. “Anquan (Boldin) had broken free. James Harrison had stepped up like he was going to blitz and then he popped out. I wasn’t able to see him around my lineman.
“He made a great play, and a great play on top of not only the interception, but to get it all the way back for a touchdown.”
How no Cardinal could collar the lumbering 242-yard Harrison. The chances were there on the return that seemed to take forever. Even Warner had one, but got blocked off the scene before Harrison reached midfield.
Harrison finally landed on top of Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald for the final foot or two of pay dirt.
Instead of Arizona being ahead 14-10 or settling for a 10-10 halftime score, the Steelers led 17-7. It took the Cardinals until the fourth-quarter to regain the spark they had shown in the second period until Harrison’s heroics.
The game was reminiscent of that 2002 Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, when Warner’s Rams had fallen behind 17-3 only to tie the game late in the fourth quarter before losing on Adam Vinatieri’s last-second field goal.
But while Warner-to-Fitzgerald for that 64-yard score wasn’t like the 73-yarder Warner threw deep to Isaac Bruce in St. Louis’ 23-16 Super Bowl win over Tennessee nine years ago, the feeling in the stadium was sure similar.
It felt like Warner had again taken the other team’s best defensive shot, then brought home a win. Warner had 414 passing yards that day, 377 on this one.
He became the Super Bowl’s all-time passing leader (1,156 yards). He became the first quarterback with three 300-yard Super Bowls, and has the top three passing-yardage performances in the game’s annals. He tied Joe Montana’s mark for TD passes in Super Bowls, with 11.
He broke his own record for postseason passing yardage with 1,147. But the loss is what will be most-attached to Warner’s effort here.
The four personal fouls and 11 total penalties on the Cardinals? They’ll be forgotten footnotes. But Harrison’s pick and return will be shown on NFL Network and ESPN for decades to come.
“Unfortunately, we made too many mistakes,” Warner said.
The winning quarterback sought out Warner after the game to express his admiration.
“Kurt Warner is Kurt Warner,” Roethlisberger said. “I think he’s a phenomenal football player. He’s a heck of a competitor, and I told him that.
“His autobiography was the first one I ever read, so it was really an honor to play against him.”
Warner rewrote his personal football story this season. It was almost perfect. It was one yard from being so, in fact.
One yard, and 100.