TAMPA, Fla. -- Forty-two seconds.
That was all that separated the Arizona Cardinals from a Vince Lombardi Trophy and a win in Super Bowl XLIII. A mere 42 ticks of the clock from an improbable comeback and their quest to, as quarterback Kurt Warner put it, "Shock the world."
Instead, it was the Pittsburgh Steelers that got to write their own immortal ending to a title, when Santonio Holmes beat three Cardinals defenders in the back of the end zone for a spectacular six-yard tippy-toe touchdown catch to win the game, 27-23, at Raymond James Stadium.
"It hurts so bad to see that clock run down," Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "To have it snatched away, it hurts."
Said guard Reggie Wells, "It feels like we should still be out there playing."
Holmes was named MVP for his nine catches, 131 yards and a touchdown, including four catches for 73 yards on the game-winning drive. But it looked like it might be Fitzgerald, who broke out of the hold the Steelers had on him in the first half to end up with seven catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
That included the 64-yard catch-and-run with less than three minutes left that had indeed shocked the Steelers and put the Cards in position to win a championship with a 23-20 lead.
"We went up, and it was on our shoulders," linebacker Karlos Dansby said of the defense.
But the Cards couldn't stop Holmes or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The Steelers got the ball back with 2:44 left, and were put in a difficult position after a holding penalty actually put Pittsburgh back at their own 12-yard line after a play. From there, Roethlisberger coolly maneuvered the Steelers for the touchdown.
"Ben scrambled around and it was a great catch," safety Adrian Wilson said.
The Cardinals had a final chance with 35 seconds after the kickoff, but a last-ditch Hail Mary chance ended when Warner was hit and fumbled.
"That's what it was going to come down to, whoever made the play at the end," Warner said of the Steelers' late drive.
The MVP could have been Warner, who was spectacular in becoming the first quarterback with three 300-yard passing games in the playoffs. Warner was 31-of-43 for 377 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception.
The one interception, however, turned into a crucial play. It came with 18 seconds left in the first half. The Cardinals, down 10-7, had moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 1 and threatened to take their first lead.
But on first-and-goal, Warner tried to get a quick pass just across the goal line to Anquan Boldin.
"He just didn't get it outside far enough," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Linebacker James Harrison, dropping back into coverage, intercepted the ball at the goal line. Then he rumbled for the longest play in Super Bowl history, a 100-yard return along the right sideline for a touchdown.
Had the Cardinals knocked Harrison out of bounds or brought him down at any point, they could have preserved their three-point deficit and were getting the ball to start the second half.
But the extended halftime actually gave the Cards a chance to regroup after what could have been a back-breaking play.
"We weren't going to throw in the towel," defensive end Bertrand Berry said.
But penalties devastated the Cardinals, with three major infractions on the Steelers' opening drive of the second half giving Pittsburgh 34 free yards on what turned into a field goal. The Cards also had multiple holding calls that stunted the offense, and finished with 11 penalties for 106 yards.
"It is unfortunate we didn't play our best game or our cleanest game," Warner said.
The Cardinals fell behind 20-7 going into the fourth quarter, but rallied on a jump-ball TD catch from Fitzgerald and then a safety caused by a hold in the end zone, pulling them within 20-16 and setting up the Warner-to-Fitzgerald huge play.
They just couldn't get that final stop.
"Everybody left everything on the field," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "Everybody."
That seemed to be the theme of the postgame talk, even as disappointment set in.
"There's nothing really you can say to your team at that time," Whisenhunt said.
Changes are coming for the Cardinals, an inevitable by-product of the system. The rumor mill continues to say offensive coordinator Todd Haley will be a prime candidate for the vacant Kansas City Chiefs head coaching job, while the many starters who have contract issues will soon become the main news.
That's why coming so close, within seconds of a title, stings.
"We came here to win and be world champs," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "But I am proud of the guys in that locker room."