Santonio Holmes Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes catches a touchdown pass as Arizona Cardinals safety Aaron Francisco defends during the fourth quarter of the NFL Super Bowl XLIII football game, Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009, in Tampa, Fla. Xxx Rd28705 Jpg S Fbn Fl

It goes without saying that any game featuring not one, but two of the top plays in NFL history will be regarded as one of the greatest Super Bowls ever.

Add a bevy of future Hall of Famers on the field and sideline, a thrilling come-from-behind victory in the final seconds and some brilliant coaching, and you have Super Bowl XLIII.

The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals, 27-23, in Tampa on Feb. 1, 2009, in a game that is widely regarded as one of the greatest Super Bowls. Here’s a look back on the 15th anniversary of that classic.

Setting the stage

There were sharp contrasts between the two teams entering the game. The Steelers were one of the NFL’s premier franchises, with five Super Bowl wins; the Cardinals had one playoff victory in the past 60 years entering that postseason.

The Steelers had steamrolled through the AFC with a 12-4 record. They featured the league’s top-ranked defense in points and yards allowed. The D yielded only 13.9 points per game, earning favorable comparisons to the legendary “Steel Curtain” defense of the 1970s. Linebacker James Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, led the way. Safety Troy Polamalu, a future Hall of Famer, had redefined that position.

On offense, the Steelers were a work in progress. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who had won a Super Bowl three years earlier, had a couple of weapons outside in Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. But the Steelers were 20th in the NFL in scoring in 2008.

The Cardinals (9-7) had played with an underdog mentality all season, embracing the slogan “Shock the World.” They were third in the NFL in scoring, but ranked 28th in scoring defense. Veteran quarterback Kurt Warner, who had already won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams, had three 1,000-yard receivers in Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston. The Cardinals were only the fifth team in NFL history with a trio of 1,000-yard receivers, and they remain the last team to pull that feat.

As a side note, both Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin and Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt were in their second seasons. Whisenhunt had spent three years as the offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh before going to the Cardinals, giving him special insight into the organization and many of its key players.

The boring part

The two teams combined for three points in the first quarter, with the Steelers getting a short field goal from Jeff Reed. Warner completed one of two first-quarter passes and fumbled, not the best start for Arizona’s high-powered offense.

Most the second quarter was unremarkable as well, with the teams swapping a pair of one-yard touchdowns (a Gary Russell run for Pittsburgh, a Ben Patrick TD reception for the Cards).

As the two-minute warning approached, no one watching the game at that point thought, “This game is an instant classic!”

That was about to change.

James Harrison’s 100-yard dash

The Cardinals picked off Roethlisberger late in the second quarter in Steelers territory, and a few plays later, Arizona had the ball at the one-yard line with 18 seconds remaining. Out of timeouts, Arizona faced an obvious passing situation. Warner targeted Boldin with a short pass.

It never got there. Harrison intercepted the ball right at the goal line and started running the other way.

“I’m thinking, ‘I’m gone,'” Harrison told The Athletic in 2023.

Then, seconds later: “I look up, it’s a sea of red jerseys, and I’m like, ‘Ah ****. I ain’t gonna make it.'”

But Harrison made it, going 100 yards with the pick-six, which still stands as the longest interception return and the second-longest play in Super Bowl history.

There was plenty of drama at the end of the play, as Fitzgerald, despite starting well behind Harrison, chased him the entire distance and tackled him at the goal line. (Fitzgerald’s dogged pursuit made for an incredible highlight in itself.)

After the play, Harrison lay on his back, appearing injured. Tomlin ran out to check on him.

“He’s down, he’s flat,” Tomlin told Roethlisberger on the QB’s Footbahlin podcast in 2023. “I run over there to get him … and I look down at him and he’s flat … I was like ‘James.’ He’s like, ‘I’m tired, boss.'”

With time expired in the half, an official review confirmed the touchdown ruling. So instead of going into halftime trailing 14-10, the Steelers had a 17-7 lead. The play has been dubbed the “Immaculate Interception,” a nod to Steelers legend Franco Harris’ famous play in the 1972 postseason.

Harrison — and his hustling blockers — made the play happen, but shrewd coaching set up the situation. Tomlin had been upset with the team’s lackluster effort on interception returns in a practice that week, so he emphasized the need for everyone to block.

“That’s what I’ll always remember about that play, that convoy of bodies around James,” Tomlin told the NFL Network in 2009. “The number of people out in front of him and the people willing to peel back and get people chasing him as he ran out of gas is as spectacular as the play itself.”

Here’s where it gets weird. Fitzgerald told The Athletic in 2023 that the Cardinals had actually worked diligently on preventing pick sixes.

“Ironically, it’s a play that we really worked on,” Fitzgerald said. “Because the year before, in 2007, we had given up the most points off of turnovers in the league. It was actually a point of emphasis in spring that year. If we do turn the football over, we have got to ******* tackle. It was a demoralizing play based on all those facts.”

Harrison also set the play in motion before the snap. In that obvious passing situation, he was supposed to blitz, but he sensed something coming and instead dropped into coverage.

Harrison’s incredible return is one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history and provided a highlight that will be shown for decades to come.

Calm before the storm

Here’s a quick recap of scoring in the third quarter: Reed kicked a short field goal for the Steelers. That’s it.

Larry Fitzgerald shines

The Steelers appeared in command early in the fourth quarter, leading 20-7. But Warner led the Cards on an 87-yard touchdown drive, capped by a one-yard pass to Fitzgerald, who made a sensational catch, to make it a one-score game at the 7:41 mark.

The teams then traded punts, with the Cardinals pinning the Steelers at their own one-yard line. A Pittsburgh holding penalty while Roethlisberger was in the end zone led to a safety and cut the Steelers’ lead to 20-16 with just over three minutes remaining.

Three plays later, Warner hit Fitzgerald with a short pass over the middle. Never known as a speedster, Fitzgerald exploded through the Steelers secondary to complete a 64-yard touchdown.

Fitzgerald, one of the greatest NFL receivers of all time, played his entire 17-season career in Arizona. He didn’t get the chance to shine in the playoffs very often, but he excelled in the 2008 postseason. He hauled in 30 passes for 546 yards and seven touchdowns in four games, capped by his 7/127/2 performance in the Super Bowl.

Fitzgerald, a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 2024, had countless career highlights, but when many fans think of him, they immediately recall that 2008 postseason, and his incredible Super Bowl.

Santonio Holmes toes the line

Fitzgerald’s stunning TD gave the Cardinals a 23-20 lead with 2:47 remaining, but it merely set the stage for another one of the NFL’s greatest plays.

The Steelers drove 72 yards to the Cardinals 6-yard line. With 42 seconds left, Roethlisberger lofted a pass to the back corner of the end zone, where three defenders were covering Holmes.

Holmes somehow not only caught the ball with his body fully extended, but he tapped both toes in bounds. An official review confirmed the play.

Holmes hauled in four passes for 73 yards on the game-winning drive. He finished with nine catches for 131 yards and that sensational TD, earning Super Bowl MVP honors.

“I said to (Roethlisberger) that I wanted to be the guy that made the plays for this team,” Holmes said after the game. “I wanted to continue to be great and great players step up in big time games and make great plays.”

The game-winning play is widely regarded as the second-best catch in Super Bowl history — after David Tyree’s wild “helmet catch.”

Steelers snuff Cardinals’ last hope

Warner, who had 377 yards and three touchdowns, completed a couple of big passes in the closing seconds, and it appeared the Cardinals might be able to rally for a last-second win. But linebacker LaMarr Woodley strip sacked Warner to seal Pittsburgh’s then-record sixth Super Bowl trophy.

Just as he had with Harrison’s pick six, Tomlin had a hand in Woodley’s strip sack. He told The Pivot podcast in 2022 that he went to Woodley before the Steelers defense took the field on that last series.

“You know, the funny thing, I go to LaMarr,” Tomlin said. “LaMarr Woodley is the youngest member of the core group. … You know how the longer you lived something, the more you got invested, you know? He was probably too young and inexperienced to be really messed up, right?

“I’m like, ‘Hey Wood, win this game bro. Win this game.’ And Wood in the young Wood arrogance said, “Yeah, I got you, coach.'”

Super Bowl XLIII legacy: 15 years later

Where does Super Bowl XLIII rank all-time? made a list before Super Bowl LIII in 2019 and ranked it 12th out of the first 52 Super Bowls. Fox Sports ranked all the Super Bowls before the 2023 game, and rated the Steelers-Cardinals showdown No. 2. The game clearly deserves a slot somewhere between those two extremes, but where?

The game seems to have edged up in the rankings in recent years. For example, ESPN ranked the game No. 11 in 2017; many different media outlets have done rankings in the past two or three years, and this game typically rated fourth or fifth on those lists.

As time goes on, those iconic plays by Harrison, Holmes and Fitzgerald, seen again and again in highlight videos, make the game look even better in retrospect.

A number of players that day went on to have Hall of Fame careers, which has also polished the game’s reputation.

Certainly Warner had already punched his ticket to Canton at that point, as had Cards running back Edgerrin James, a four-time Pro Bowler with the Indianapolis Colts whose career had run out of gas. But Fitzgerald was still early in his HOF career. Boldin was named as a semifinalist for the Class of 2024.

On the Steelers’ side, Polamalu was inducted in 2021. Roethlisberger and Tomlin are considered shoo-ins when they are eligible, and both Ward and Harrison were semifinalists in 2024.

Another measure of the game’s legacy is that players and fans are still talking about all those iconic plays.

The Cardinals randomly posted a tweet in October 2021 saying, “Santonio’s feet were definitely down,” followed by a bunch of red flags. That drew a huge response, including hilarious posts from the Steelers and Holmes himself.

When someone commented about Harrison’s pick six on X/Twitter recently, Warner responded.

Despite losing, Warner looks back at that game with pride.

In an appearance several years ago on Joe Buck’s Undeniable, Warner said, “When I look back and when I say I have perspective, sometimes you can win when you lose. Without question, that game taught me that more than any others. That team and what we accomplished … we won that day.

“Two minutes to go, everybody in the world going, ‘The Arizona Cardinals are good enough to win the Super Bowl.’ … that was a win for us. It was one of the greatest games I’ve ever played in.”

Tomlin, who at 36 became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl to that point, is still looking for his second win in the big game (the Steelers lost in 2011 to the Green Bay Packers). He told The Athletic in 2023 that win over the Cardinals still motivates him today, 15 years later.

“I want (another title) for the people I’m with, the people that don’t know what it’s about,” Tomlin said. “It’s the pursuit of rare air, and it forever changes you when you win it.”

About Arthur Weinstein

Arthur spends his free time traveling around the U.S. to sporting events, state and national parks, and in search of great restaurants off the beaten path.