TAMPA, Fla. -- No one expected this. No one expected Larry Fitzgerald Jr. to become a non-factor. No one expected these playoffs' second coming of Jerry Rice to vanish into the cloudy, crisp night air.
Except, of course, maybe Ike Taylor.
That Steelers cornerback, who so suffocated Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens and any other star receiver that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau assigned his way, gave little to no ground through three quarters of Super Bowl XLIII last night at Raymond James Stadium. He frustrated Fitzgerald, quarterback Kurt Warner, the entire Arizona offense and anyone rooting for the moribund franchise playing in its first Super Bowl, its first championship game in 60 years.
Fitzgerald, his next contest after scoring an NFL-championship-tying record three touchdowns in the first half of the NFC championship game, had one catch in the first half last night. For 12 yards. After 28 minutes and one second without a throw in his direction from an oft-harried Warner.
He had nothing in the third quarter. Zero catches. Zero impact.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, after a 6-yard catch at the 10:23 mark finally giving him a second reception of the game, the former Pitt standout took the big stage.
Then Taylor seemingly couldn't stop him.
He made an impact, all right.
It just wasn't enough for the Cardinals, who eventually lost, 27-23.
His team trailing, 20-7, late in the game, Fitzgerald caught four passes -- exactly half of Arizona's eight-play, 87-yard drive -- for 31 yards. He hurtled himself skyward, in a silhouette that NFL defenders have grown too accustomed to seeing, and snagged Warner's 1-yard fade route in the back right corner for the touchdown that enlivened the Cardinals and cut the Steelers' lead to 20-14. He threw a franchise on his shoulder pads.
In the process, Fitzgerald added a fourth and fifth NFL postseason record to his burgeoning portfolio. After conjuring three in the NFC championship game with three touchdowns, a third consecutive 100-yard game and 419 total receiving yards, this fifth-year pro in that breakout fourth quarter recorded his 28th reception of this postseason -- breaking a 1988 Rice record. Fitzgerald's sixth touchdown this postseason, on that mid-fourth quarter drive, also tied Rice, circa 1988.
He's 25 years old, and already he is aligning his name alongside, or over top, arguably the greatest receiver to ever play in the NFL?
LeBeau put safety Troy Polamalu in one-on-one, superstar-on-superstar coverage against Fitzgerald a couple of times in the first half, which worked for a time. The Steelers seemed to abandon that, entrusting Taylor to single coverage. Then, in the fourth, that began to unravel.
"If I am able to hoist that Vince Lombard trophy on Sunday, then I definitely will be living the dream, no question," Fitzgerald said earlier in the week. "There are very few people in life who get to do exactly what I do. Every day, I wake up and thank God for the opportunity he has given me and for the health he has given me and for putting me in this position, because it is truly a blessing and an honor to be here."
On the final three plays of the Cardinals' drive that ended with three and a half minutes left, Warner never got the chance to throw to Fitzgerald again.
So it would come down a final, last-chance, complete-desperation drive for Fitzgerald and the Cardinals. Score and win. Fail, and lose that chance at the Lombardi, the ring, the championship.
Fitzgerald didn't fail them.
Sixty-four yards later, with 2:37 left in the biggest game of his life and in the biggest game of an 89-year-old franchise, this game-changer bolted into the middle and up the Steelers' gut for a 64-yard touchdown. Two plays and 21 seconds after a safety, and it was all Arizona needed. It gave the Cardinals a 23-20 lead in a game skeptics -- by the millions -- figured they had no right to be playing.
With that, Fitzgerald surpassed Rice for the all-time NFL postseason touchdown mark and a fourth 100-yard receiving game, to own that record all by himself.
He finished with six catches for 112 yards ... in that fantastic fourth quarter alone. But, in the end, another receiver superceded him this Super night, Lynn Swann incarnate Santonio Holmes with the championship-winning touchdown catch in the final minute.
Chuck Finder can be reached at email@example.com .