Steelers' 'taste' of Super Bowl turns out bitter

Packers prevail, 31-25, after spirited comeback falls just short


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ARLINGTON, Texas -- This one, alas, did not finish with that familiar ring.

These remarkably resilient Steelers, on the cusp of one of the most spectacular comebacks in sporting history, failed to secure their record seventh championship by falling short of the Green Bay Packers, 31-25, in Super Bowl XLV Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium.

It came oh, so close to being oh, so different.

"We just wanted a taste of the lead. Just a taste. And were right there," safety Troy Polamalu said. "But they made the plays on defense, and we didn't. That was the difference."

Green Bay forced three turnovers, beginning with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's two interceptions that led to the Packers storming to a 21-3 lead in the first half.

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The Steelers pulled within 21-10 on Hines Ward's touchdown catch late in the half, then 21-17 on Rashard Mendenhall's 8-yard touchdown run early in the second half. They were poised to take the lead early in the fourth quarter, with possession in the Packers' territory, but Mendenhall lost a fumble, and Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers capped a 55-yard drive with an 8-yard touchdown flick to Greg Jennings that made it 28-17.

The Steelers kept coming: Roethlisberger lobbed to Mike Wallace for a 25-yard touchdown with 7:40 remaining, and a two-point conversion pulled them within 28-25. After a Green Bay field goal, there was one final possession for the Steelers with 1:59 on the clock, but the drive stalled 69 yards short.

"Usually, when you lose, it's because of turnovers," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "But they made plays. It's probably less about what we were unable to do than what they were able to do."

The AFC champions' locker room seemed one part deflated, two parts disgusted.

"It's disappointing to lose," Roethlisberger said. "For me, it's even more disappointing because you feel like you let a lot of people down. ... I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, my coaches, my teammates, my fans ... and it's not a good feeling."

"It's tough," Ward said. "We had an opportunity to beat them, and we fell short. Giving up 21 points off turnovers? That's the ballgame."

"We screwed up a lot," tight end Heath Miller said. "And they made us pay."

Roethlisberger blamed himself. Both of his interceptions were thrown into double-coverage on Wallace, and the first of those was returned 37 yards by safety Nick Collins for the Packers' 14-0 lead.

"There are some passes I'd like to have back," Roethlisberger said.

Mendenhall took blame, too. Although he rushed for 63 hard yards, his fumble proved critical. Green Bay's brilliant linebacker, Clay Matthews, jarred the ball loose.

"I went squarely into the football," Matthews said.

Blame on the Steelers' end easily could be assigned, as well, to special teams captain Keyaron Fox for an ill-advised unnecessary roughness penalty on a kickoff return before their final drive. That set them back 13 yards and had them starting at their 13.

"You can't do that," Ward said. "I don't even know who the player was, but you can't do that."

How special would a victory for the Steelers have been?

Consider that this comeback would have been from an 18-point deficit, and the greatest comebacks in Super Bowl history were from a mere 10 points down: In Super Bowl XXII, Washington trailed Denver, 10-0, before the Redskins crushed the Broncos, 42-10. Last year, New Orleans trailed Indianapolis, 10-0, but the Saints beat the Colts, 31-17.

For Green Bay, it was a fourth Super Bowl championship and 13th overall NFL title, more than any team.

The Packers entered the playoffs as a wild card but ripped through three opponents on the road -- similar to the Steelers' path in Super Bowl XL -- and they did so largely on the back of the mobile, strong-armed Rodgers.

For Rodgers, named Super Bowl MVP for passing for 304 yards and three touchdowns, it was a conclusive emergence from the huge shadow of Brett Favre, the Packers' longtime quarterback preceding him.

"This is a great group of men, a lot of character," Rodgers said. "I couldn't be more proud to be part of this."

For Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy, it was the culmination of a journey that began in his native Greenfield.

"It was the great resolve of our football team," McCarthy said. "Just a tremendous effort. The Lombardi Trophy is finally going home."

This would have been the Steelers' third championship in six years, their second under Tomlin. And, to hear those on the inside tell it, this trophy would have held a special place even among the 18 players who already had two rings.

That, several of them said, is because this edition had to overcome so many hurdles: Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's conduct code. Linebacker James Harrison was fined $100,000 for hard hits and briefly contemplated retirement. And many key players -- notably Polamalu, defensive end Aaron Smith and tackle Max Starks -- missed long stretches to injury.

In this Super Bowl, Smith and center Maurkice Pouncey were unable to play, and four other regulars -- Mendenhall, receiver Emmanuel Sanders, tackle Flozell Adams and cornerback Bryan McFadden -- missed time.

Green Bay lost three starters during the game, too.

"I will not sit here and make excuses," Tomlin said. "What I will say is that Green Bay made the plays, man, and deserved to be world champs. I don't think the injuries were a factor."

The crowd of 103,219 inside the Dallas Cowboys' monstrous $1.3 billion stadium seemed to be split about 50-50 among supporters, although the waving of Terrible Towels might have given the visual appearance that the Steelers had an edge.

Many of them traveled from Pittsburgh or other far-flung areas and, in most cases, had to cough up the four-figure cost of tickets, only to see their team lose.

"Oh, there's no regrets," said Blaine Laverick of Raleigh, N.C., who paid $5,000 each for tickets for himself and son, Michael. The father wore Steelers gear, and the son is a Packers fan. "It's such a great experience to be here rooting on your team. And my son's on the other side, so it was a father-son trip I couldn't pass up."

Scott Breisinger of Jefferson paid $2,100 each for his ticket and those of his three sons.

"I'm glad we came," Mr. Breisinger said. "I would say the Steelers already were the NFL's greatest franchise, win or lose. A seventh would have just put them over the top, I think, and make them the greatest franchise in all of sports."

For the city of Pittsburgh, it would have been a 15th major professional sports championship, along with the five of the Pirates and the three of the Penguins. It marked only the fourth time that a city team lost in a championship round, along with the Steelers' loss in Super Bowl XXX, the Pirates' losses in 1903 and 1927, and the Penguins' loss in 2008.

The city was represented here, too, by Wexford's Christina Aguilera singing a rousing national anthem -- although she muffed some of the words -- during which Steelers cornerback William Gay teared up on the sideline.

More tears would flow hours later.

Art Rooney II, the Steelers' president, addressed the players afterward.

"I just said, 'Thanks,' " Rooney said. "They worked hard, and they got us close to winning a seventh championship. That's pretty impressive."


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at the "DK on Pittsburgh Sports" blog at www.post-gazette.com/plus . First Published February 7, 2011 5:15 AM


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