ARLINGTON, Texas – The Steelers had all the momentum. The Terrible Towels were out in full force around Cowboys Stadium. Rashard Mendenhall took the handoff with every intention of moving Pittsburgh a little closer to completing an improbable comeback.
Then, a big hit, the ball popped out of Mendenhall's hands, and Desmond Bishop took off with it for the Green Bay Packers.
It would be the biggest mistake on a night filled with them for the Steelers. Green Bay hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy with a 31-25 victory Sunday.
"If you win the turnover battle," Bishop said, "there's a direct correlation to winning."
The Packers won that category going away.
Therefore, they won the game.
Pittsburgh turned it over three times, and all three miscues were followed by Green Bay touchdowns. The Packers didn't give it up once, allowing them to prevail when they were outgained (387-338 in total yards), had the ball nearly 7 minutes less than the Steelers and barely mustered a running game (50 yards on just 13 carries).
"When you turn the ball over like we did," Mendenhall said, "you put yourself in a bad position."
His fumble on the first play of the fourth quarter helped the Packers hold on, just when Pittsburgh seemed on the verge of overcoming an early 21-3 deficit.
Of course, let's not forget Ben Roethlisberger throwing two interceptions, including a pick that was returned 37 yards for a touchdown by Nick Collins to give Green Bay 14-0 lead less than 12 minutes into the game. The Packers stretched it to 21-3 — scoring again after Big Ben's second interception — before the Steelers made a game of it.
"There's a lot of what ifs. There's a lot of throws I'd like to have back," Roethlisberger said. "We turned the ball over. A lot of that is my fault."
He hooked up with Hines Ward for a touchdown that made it 21-10 at halftime. Mendenhall rumbled into the end zone from 8 yards out to bring Pittsburgh even closer, 21-17. And, as the final period started, the Steelers had second-and-2 at the Green Bay 33.
Then, the fateful play.
Mendenhall took the handoff, but Clay Matthews drove a shoulder right into the runner almost as soon as he got the ball, and massive Ryan Pickett dived in to complete a 595-pound sandwich. The result of that fearsome collision: the ball came flying out, and Bishop swooped in to scoop it up.
Matthews looked as if he knew what was coming, and actually he did.
"I saw the play coming back my way," he said. "Fortunately, through film work, I was able to tell my defensive end what to do and I was able to make the play. It was key at the time. They were driving on us. We were able to get that turnover and turn it into points, which was the difference in the game."
Bishop was closing in on Mendenhall when the ball squirted loose. It landed near a couple of Pittsburgh linemen, but they never saw it, allowing the Green Bay linebacker a clear shot to make the recovery on the run. He was thinking touchdown, but made it only 7 yards before he was tackled at the 45.
"We could see the counter (play)," Bishop said. "Me and Clay talked about it before the snap. We thought they would come back our way. I read it and I was just relentlessly pursuing to the ball. It happened to pop out. I scooped it up and tried to score."
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense took care of the remaining 55 yards, scoring the touchdown that provided some breathing room. The Steelers never quit, answering with a TD of their own to make it close again, but Green Bay held on the final possession to send the Lombardi Trophy back to the home of the coach whose name it bears.
For the Steelers, only that most dreaded of questions:
"I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down — the fans, the coaches, my teammates," Roethlisberger said. "It's not a good feeling."
Imagine how Mendenhall was feeling.
"I just got hit and the ball came out. It just happened, and it should not have happened," he said. "It's tough. We did it to ourselves. We didn't play well enough to win, and it is a long ride home."