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Cardinals let ultimate glory slip away

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TAMPA, Fla. – This was the opportunity Kurt Warner was seeking.

It was his stage on which to perform. To take, perhaps, one more curtain call.

It also was set to be the coronation of Larry Fitzgerald as the best receiver in the game.

This was that Hall of Fame drive Warner "needed" to finish his rise in the Valley of the Sun from the NFL ashes and cement his spot in Canton; to legitimize this Arizona Cardinals run; to redeem Bill Bidwell; to tweak the Rooneys for shunning coach Ken Whisenhunt for the same job on the black and gold sideline.

It was a chance to finally, emphatically, shut up all those within Las Vegas and without who gave these 9-7 division winners no chance against the mighty, legendary Pittsburgh Steelers.

For Warner and his Cardinals, in front of the several thousand Arizona fans who stood surrounded by a sea of Terrible Towels, this was their moment.

"I just felt like we were supposed to become a world champ," Cardinals Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin said.

And they were … if the game had ended with 2:37 left in the fourth quarter.

After a quiet first three quarters of Sunday's Super Bowl XLIII at Raymond James Stadium in which Warner and Fitzgerald connected just once, the pair erupted in the final stanza.

Warner and Fitzgerald connected four times on a drive early in the fourth, culminating in a Fitzgerald TD that brought Arizona within 20-14.

And then, with a little under three minutes left, Warner and Fitzgerald seized their moment and with a 64-yard touchdown play – the perfect ending to an unlikely run.

Or at least it would have been.

"I [thought] there was too much time on the clock," Whisenhunt said of his team's go-ahead TD with 2:37 to go. "That's something that you're always worried about, but I felt that maybe we could at least hold them to a field goal and have a chance to go to overtime, but they made the play."

That play, a Ben Roethlisberger bullet past triple coverage and into the outstretched arms of Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone, rescued the Steelers from collapse and dashed the erstwhile surging hopes of these upstart Cardinals.

"Words can't explain it. We were so close to being world champs," Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We let it slip between our fingers."

The Cardinals perhaps shouldn't have even been here. They stumbled badly down the stretch, got blown out a couple of times and as a slightly better than .500 winner of a weak division gave Patriots fans plenty of ammo to complain about the NFL playoff format.

But an unlikely run past heavier-weights Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia – led by Fitzgerald's historic playoff performance, Edgerrin James' rediscovered purpose and Warner's experience and arm – brought them here.

And if these Cardinals weren't believing before this game, if they began to sweat after the Steelers' fast start, feared they couldn't overcome the plethora of penalties they incurred, if they had their doubts after James Harrison ended the first half with a 100-yard interception return rumble into the end zone, they sure were believing in the fourth quarter.

"We're battle-tested," Dansby said. "We had a lot of games like that. We knew we had to come out and fight. Our pride was on the line and our character was being tested. We came out in the second half and showed what kind of character we have."

They did just that with the first Fitzgerald touchdown. And then again with the safety.

Then there was Warner's perfect pass to Fitzgerald, who effortlessly ran away from the Steelers secondary into the end zone, seemingly into history.

"Your emotions are so high with two minutes left in the game when you have the lead," said Warner, who pointed out that he's lost big games on late plays before (see: Vinatieri, Adam). "You know that you are two minutes away from being world champions."

But so were the Steelers.

Roethlisberger executed their dramatic late drive, culminating with the almost unreal TD pass to Holmes, leaving the Cardinals with nothing left but a couple of late tosses and a Warner fumble on a would-be desperation play.

And just like that, the Steelers were celebrating for the sixth time.

Conversely, this Cardinals organization, a stranger to success, experienced perhaps its greatest disappointment.

"It was like getting a chair pulled out from under you," Fitzgerald said. "It just hurts to be able to get so close and fall short of your ultimate goal.

"It hurts so bad to be so close to being a champion and have it snatched away from you. … I just feel empty to be honest with you, kind of like all for nothing."

The Steelers have figured it out. They win with defense and opportunistic offense; they maintain continuity with their coaches; they make great draft picks. This is why they're perennial powers in the AFC and preseason favorites to at least reach the conference title game.

The Cardinals are just figuring all this out. They have their bright, young coach. They have their system, though it was refined with more of a running game in the playoffs. And they have their leader.

And perhaps most importantly, they now have a sense of their potential.

"No one expected us to be here," Warner said. "It doesn't get any better than this. I mean obviously you want to win, but we took the best in the league down to the wire. They had to make some great plays to win. I am proud of this team. … I am proud of the fact that we gave ourselves a chance to win."

Warner says he doesn't know if he'll be back next season. Boldin claims he's not even thinking about whether he'll be donning another team's uniform next season.

But for those who will be back in Arizona, there is reason to hope.

"You've just got to try to pick up the pieces and come back strong next season," Fitzgerald said. "It gives us something positive to build on. I think guys really bought into the program last year and really made some sacrifices. I think guys seeing how close we are are going to buy into it even more, do a little bit more this offseason."

Even defensive lineman Antonio Smith, who said that the loss was "a letdown – in no way shape or form is it a positive," acknowledged coming so close will push his teammates to work harder to make it back here.

But that's all for another day. On this night, the Cardinals were one defensive stop and a few more ticks of the clock away from glory. Any acknowledgement of building blocks, any prospects of future success does little to ease the sting of falling short.

"There is not much you can say at this time that is going to make it feel any better," Whisenhunt said. "… We learned a lot about our team and it's unfortunate that it had to come out this way."

Said Dansby, "We thought we were going to be world champs. We had the opportunity to be great, but we didn't get out and finish. We didn't finish it."

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