TAMPA — Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie knew it. He knew the ride was likely over.
He knew a defense that had helped thrust the Cardinals back into Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday had bowed to the competition when it mattered most.
He knew it because he was rushing to try to prevent Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes from snaring the winning 6-yard touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left.
He couldn't do it.
"I knew it," the Bradenton native said, dejected. "I knew he caught the ball. Inside I was like, dang, dang … dang."
That happened on a drive after the Cardinals had come from 13 points down to take a 23-20 lead on a 64-yard touchdown reception by Larry Fitzgerald with 2:37 left. Arizona's defense, which had controlled the Steelers for three straight possessions — including creating a safety when Karlos Dansby was held in the end zone trying to reach quarterback Ben Roethlisberger — suddenly could not make the plays that mattered most.
"When we got the lead I said, 'We've got to stop them. We've got to make plays,' " said tackle Darnell Dockett, a former Seminole. "And we didn't make plays when we needed to seal the game up."
On Holmes' winning catch, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast had the Cardinals in a zone defense against Pittsburgh's cluster formation. But they were unable to locate and contain a player they had isolated as the key to the Steelers' passing game even before he made four catches for 73 yards on the final drive.
"It was something we thought we'd adjusted to, but they made a nice throw and catch," Pendergast said. "They made a great play, and we didn't."
Roethlisberger, sacked 45 times in the regular season, went down just twice Sunday, bouncing outside, finding receivers off his lumbering scramble or throwing the ball away when needed.
The Cardinals will eventually have to reconcile 11 penalties for 106 yards, a spate of missed tackles and a first-and-goal pass from quarterback Kurt Warner to end the first half that was intercepted by linebacker James Harrison and turned into a 100-yard touchdown return.
The loss will be hard to absorb, safety Adrian Wilson said, not because of how it unfolded, but because of an opportunity lost.
"It took so long to get here."