TAMPA — Kurt Warner tried to warn his young Cardinals teammates. The 37-year-old quarterback came to the sideline after throwing a bullet that receiver Larry Fitzgerald turned into a 64-yard touchdown.
In the first half, Warner and Fitzgerald had come up dry as the desert. But it was a different story in the fourth quarter. After hooking up for a second touchdown in about five minutes, the dynamic duo had helped grab a 23-20 lead over the Steelers with 2:37 remaining in the game.
But even as the sideline exploded, Warner had a feeling the celebration might not last.
"I knew it wasn't over," Warner said. "I knew we had to make some more plays if we were going to win the game. I think there was some excitement on the sideline, people coming up to talk to me. I'm like, 'Just hold on. Give me another 2½ minutes and then we'll talk.' "
The only problem with the quick-strike abilities of Warner and Fitzgerald was that they left too much time for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who engineered a 78-yard touchdown drive. Roethlisberger tossed the winner to Santonio Holmes, who tightroped the end zone corner with 35 seconds remaining in the Steelers' 27-23 win.
Fitzgerald, held to one catch for 12 yards in the first half, was more confident the lead would hold up, especially the way the Cardinals defense played much of the second, forcing a safety when Steelers center Justin Hartwig was called for holding in the end zone late with 2:58 left.
"I was confident we were going to get a stop and we were going to be champions," Fitzgerald said.
"It was like getting a chair pulled out from under you. It just hurts to be able to get so close and fall short of your ultimate goal. … I just feel empty right now, to be honest with you. It's kind of like all for nothing."
Fitzgerald, who set a record with his sixth and seventh postseason touchdowns, exploded in the fourth quarter. He finished with seven receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns.
In the first half, the Steelers blanketed Fitzgerald with two defenders and Warner was content to complete passes in the flat. But the Cardinals made an adjustment, spreading the field with four receivers in the second half and running in-routes to Fitzgerald, who pounded away at the soft middle of the defense.
"They basically said we're going to sacrifice a zone," Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "When somebody's doing that, you ought to be able to take advantage of it, which I think at times we did.
"At the half, we made some adjustments and got (Fitzgerald) in position to make some plays. That's the name of the game, and we knew we had to have him making plays for us to have a chance to win."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he was glad that if the Cardinals were going to erase a 20-7 fourth-quarter deficit, they did so quickly.
"I actually was thinking that if they're going to score, that's how you want them to score: extremely quickly as opposed to just milking it and just going down the field and then not having enough time to execute a two-minute drive," Tomlin said.
Warner, now 1-2 in Super Bowls, finished 31-of-43 passing for 377 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. The Cardinals were outgained 140 yards to 13 in the first quarter.
But credit Warner and Fitzgerald for bouncing back. If only they had taken their time.
"Your emotions are so high when there's two minutes to go and you've got the lead," Warner said. "But then on the flip side, they come down and make a great play and the emotions dip."