TAMPA, Fla. - It was the kind of drive that Donovan McNabb, the Eagles, and their fans have only dreamed about.

Super Bowl XLIII hung in the balance Sunday night at Raymond James Stadium when Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers trotted onto the field for what appeared to be their final possession.

After a hot start, Roethlisberger and the Steelers' offense had quickly gone cold for a long stretch. Big Ben was 8 of 9 for 122 yards on the Steelers' first two possessions, resulting in 10 points, then just 8 of 15 for 50 yards with an interception on Pittsburgh's next six, resulting in only three points.

The 6-foot-5 quarterback looked pedestrian for much of the game. But that's not what will be remembered about Roethlisberger 50 years from now. Like so many other great quarterbacks who have won on the NFL's grandest stage, Big Ben cemented his status as a comeback kid.

McNabb, of course, has a far different reputation at crunch time.

"It's now or never," Roethlisberger told his teammates before the final drive.

With a major assist from third-year receiver Santonio Holmes, Roethlisberger made sure now won out over never, which triggered more debate about McNabb and the Eagles back in Philadelphia.

Given a remarkably similar situation two weeks earlier at University of Phoenix Stadium, McNabb and the Eagles couldn't complete what would have been one of the most remarkable come-from-behind wins in franchise history.

Roethlisberger and the Steelers got the ball at their 22-yard line with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left while down by three points. McNabb and the Eagles were down by seven when they got the ball at their 20 with 2:53 remaining in the NFC championship game.

The Steelers' fifth-year quarterback completed six of eight passes for 88 yards on the game-winning drive. The most crucial completion of the drive, and perhaps Roethlisberger's signature moment, was his first completion.

After a holding penalty had pushed the Steelers back to their 12-yard line and created first and 20, Pittsburgh was in danger of losing after having squandered a 13-point advantage, the biggest in Super Bowl history to disappear, in the fourth quarter.

Roethlisberger immediately eased some of the pressure with the 14-yard completion to Nate Washington on the next play, and it was all about his ability to escape a collapsing pocket, step up, and make a strong throw.

Had either Darnell Dockett or Antonio Smith been able to come up with the Cardinals' third sack of the game there, Arizona would probably be celebrating its first Super Bowl title instead of listening to stories about the Steelers' legacy of winning a record six Super Bowl titles.

You won't see that first-down completion nearly as often as the incredible game-winning touchdown catch by Holmes in the right corner of the end zone. But it might have been more important.

On the Eagles' final drive against the Cardinals, McNabb completed three of his first four passes and took the offense from the Eagles' 20 to the Arizona 47. But then he threw four straight incompletions, ending the Eagles' comeback bid - and season.

Hank Baskett slipped on the first-down play, so that wasn't McNabb's fault. McNabb badly overthrew DeSean Jackson on second down, which became his signature moment in the game.

The quarterback threw behind Baskett on third down, but he was being pressured on that play. The fourth-down play could have been called pass interference on former Eagle Rod Hood, and the ball could have been caught by Kevin Curtis.

Neither thing happened, and another Eagles season ended in frustration.

McNabb remains known as a good quarterback who can't lead his team to greatness. Fair or not, that's the perception and the reality for the Eagles and their quarterback.

It doesn't matter that when you look at the 2008 statistics, McNabb had a much better season than Roethlisberger with receivers who aren't as good. But Roethlisberger, who threw for only 17 touchdowns and suffered 15 interceptions in the regular season, also led six fourth-quarter comebacks, giving him 17 in his five-year career.

McNabb has rallied his team in the past, but with far less frequency in recent years and only once in a postseason game.

From 2000 through 2004, McNabb led the Eagles on late game-winning drives nine times, including the playoff win over the Green Bay Packers in which he completed the famous fourth-and-26 throw to Freddie Mitchell. (That particular drive merely tied the game; the Eagles won in overtime.) But since the 2004 season, he has rallied the team from fourth-quarter deficits just four times.

The only time he did it this season was the game in San Francisco, in which the Eagles were down by 26-17 with 14:42 remaining.

Etched in the memories of Eagles fans are the NFC championship losses that ended with interceptions and incompletions.

Those missteps will be erased only if McNabb and the Eagles can someday deliver a parade down Broad Street.

Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.