DETROIT – When it was over and Antwaan Randle El had picked the confetti from his hair, he sat back and gave a sly smile. The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver wanted you to draw close so he could tell you a secret.
All week long, as reporters buzzed around him asking about his ability to throw the football, he danced around the subject and struggled not to drop hints. The media called him Super Bowl XL's X-factor, but he one upped them, suggesting his impact should be called the "El Factor." All the while, he knew something the outside world didn't: Before the game was over, he would throw the football.
Little did he realize, his lone pass would be the back-breaker.
"I went out and lined up and I tried not to give it away," said Randle El, whose 43-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to Hines Ward sealed the 21-10 win over the Seattle Seahawks. "I didn't let my eyes get too big, I tried to act like I was going to run a route, and then I came on back around on a reverse [and threw it]. … It was just a matter of getting it called at the right time and everything being perfect. And everything was perfect."
It was the perfect pass in a game filled with imperfections. Not only did Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger finish 9-for-21 and post the lowest passer rating ever for a Super Bowl (22.6), but he also threw two costly interceptions and squeaked in a rushing touchdown that barely avoided being overturned by instant replay. And for a brief moment, it looked like his red-zone interception in the third quarter (returned 76 yards by Kelly Herndon for another dubious Super Bowl record) had Pittsburgh teetering on the edge of oblivion.
But in the end, it was the flaws that ultimately made Pittsburgh great. The Steelers won with a pass from a wide receiver who was told he couldn't cut it as an NFL quarterback, and a Super Bowl-record touchdown run from a running back who barely touched the field in college. Even Roethlisberger had his game-changing moments, throwing a key backside block on Randle El's touchdown throw and a maddening 12-second scramble in the second quarter that bought just enough time for a 37-yard pass to Ward. The latter play set up Roethlisberger's 1-yard touchdown run to give Pittsburgh a 7-3 lead.
"You imagine yourself coming out and playing your best football, and it wasn't that way," Roethlisberger said. "I couldn't get it done for whatever reason, so we ran the ball a lot today and I threw a block in there."
In the larger view, the game was a microcosm of the Steelers' season. As in Pittsburgh's late run to the playoffs and gritty postseason play, the sum of the team's parts kept it afloat when some pieces were breaking down. With Roethlisberger struggling, the offense shifted to running back Willie Parker and Randle El, and the Steelers also relied on a defense that held the league's most prolific offense to its fewest points scored this season.
Pittsburgh's coordinators – a staple of the franchise this postseason – were especially strong. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau pieced together his fourth strong game plan of the playoffs, blitzing slightly less than he had in wins over Indianapolis and Denver and calling for zone coverage to help stifle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck into a 53-percent completion rate.
Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt wasn't far behind. He called the Randle El reverse pass at the perfect time, getting the Seattle defense to tilt to the wideout's side of the field after using him on a pair of short screens. Even the game's other big play – Parker's 75-yard touchdown run – was called at precisely the right moment, with Pittsburgh seemingly in a passing down with second-and-10 at its own 25.
"Certainly you don't expect him to go 75 yards with it," Whisenhunt said. "I thought we would get something good out of the play. Worst case, it would put us in third and short."
In a way, it was an emblematic play for the Steelers, who have survived by plugging away down the stretch and breaking big plays when you least expected it. Lest we forget, this was a No. 6 seed that could have dropped out in the first round of the playoffs, and few would have batted an eye. Expectations were truly that low.
"Don't ever let someone tell you that you can't do something," Parker said. "If they tell you that, then you go work harder."
Parker could have been talking about himself, having put to rest his days as a college backup at North Carolina. Or he could have been talking about Pittsburgh's team, which was largely written off after three consecutive losses in November and December had the AFC playoff buzzards swirling.
Two months later, the Steelers put together a run even the history books must appreciate: eight consecutive wins to close the season, including three on the road in the playoffs. No team in history has risen up to win the Super Bowl as a No. 6 seed, and Pittsburgh did it in the most impressive fashion possible – by knocking off the AFC's top three seeds and then rolling over the NFC's No. 1 seed for good measure.
"We came and we shocked the world," Parker said, repeating a sports cliché that actually fits Pittsburgh perfectly.
On the flip side, it's a bitter loss for Seattle, but the Seahawks do have plenty to look forward to. They drove to the Super Bowl with a young defense that could feasibly become one of the league's elite units next season. And barring the departure of free-agent-to-be Shaun Alexander – which seems a real possibility – the offense should easily maintain its stature as one of the NFL's most prolific units.
"I think we earned our respect," Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson said. "… We are going to be even more hungry next season."
For now, that's one thing the Steelers won't be worrying about. Not with an offseason to soak up the impressive reality of what the franchise has accomplished. Consider the multitude of stereotypes broken and dreams completed Sunday for Pittsburgh. Coach Bill Cowher jumped from the "can't win the big one" list and straight into the "best coaches ever" conversation. Jerome Bettis retired Sunday with a title that will be the crowning achievement on his Hall of Fame resume.
Ward – the game's MVP with his 123 receiving yards – entrenched himself alongside Pittsburgh greats like Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw. And of course, Roethlisberger became the youngest winning quarterback in Super Bowl history, eclipsing New England's Tom Brady.
That's a great deal accomplished in one game. So much so, Roethlisberger was asked to sum it up in one word, and he responded with "surreal."
Not that such a reaction should be a surprise. Like most Super Bowl seasons, it was a hard journey to sum up so soon after its completion. But Randle El might have come closest in one of his spiritual moments afterward. Grinning, he raised a fist to the sky.
"Glory," he said after hoisting his children onto his lap. "The word for the day is glory."
For a team that cut one of the most impressive swaths through playoff history, you get the feeling these Steelers have earned plenty of that.