It's the reason they play, why we watch nearly three tons of flailing humanity wrestling over a 14-ounce piece of leather.
On rare occasions, a seemingly inevitable loss in an epic game is transformed into a startling victory. Sometimes, when hundreds of minor factors align into a perfectly coordinated storm, that fleeting moment becomes history, stored forever in our collective mind.
"As a kid growing up in the street, I was Joe Montana throwing game-winning Super Bowl touchdowns," Roethlisberger said last week at the Steelers' facility. "As you get that ball, you've got a chance to do that.
"If you go down and win the game, there's a chance there's going to be a bunch of kids doing the same thing that I was doing -- and they're acting like me."
On a frozen field in Wisconsin, Bart Starr scored the touchdown that delivered the Green Bay Packers into the very first Super Bowl.
"We put that chin strap around the helmet and went right out there," he said, sitting in his office just outside Birmingham, Ala. "I would use the word attitude: This is what we need to do, this is how we have to go about getting there.
"Let's go get it done."
"There's always that something that says, 'I'm going to show you,'" he said from his home in Wayne, N.J., about 15 miles west of where Sunday's Super Bowl will be played. "It's something in you that has persevered. It's the aroma that says 'We're going to come out on top.'"
All three of these men took part in something larger than themselves, had a hand (literally) in creating an unlikely, uplifting victory. All three helped orchestrate a memorable, clutch championship drive.
Eight of the previous 47 Super Bowls were won in the final two minutes, but only five of those games were decided by a touchdown. Conference championship games, because of the enormous stakes, are worthy of discussion, too.
Here, presented for your pregame pleasure, is a tasty buffet worthy of the big game, a handful of the best championship clutch drives of all time, in reverse chronological order:
Ben Roethlisberger is not a rah-rah kind of guy. So when the Arizona Cardinals scored 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIII to take a 23-20 lead, the Steelers' quarterback low-keyed it.
"Hey, guys, listen," he told his offense on the sideline. "Let's just go take care of our business and do what we have to do. You know, be the best that we can be this drive."
And then, sitting in a room overlooking the Steelers' snow-covered practice field, Roethlisberger interrupted himself with an explosive laugh.
"The first play was a holding penalty, so it didn't work so well," he continued. "But we did better after that."
Pittsburgh had the ball on its 22-yard line with 2 minutes, 37 seconds left. Inside, Roethlisberger was amped, but in the huddle, addressing his teammates, "I tried to be the same as I was all game. Don't show any panic. Just go play the game.
"If you try and press, or stress yourself, that's when bad things happen."
After the Cardinals had taken the lead, Steelers wide receiver Santonio Holmes had told Roethlisberger he wanted to be the guy who made the plays to win the game. And, so he did. Holmes caught three passes for 67 yards and the Steelers found themselves on Arizona's 6-yard line with 42 seconds to play.
Down the stretch, a funny thing happened to Roethlisberger. He actually forgot the score.
"As we started getting closer, into field goal range -- this is absolutely horrible to say -- but I forgot that a field goal tied it," Roethlisberger said. "Like, I was focused only on a touchdown.
"I wasn't even thinking about tying the game, which I probably should have, because the last pass was really close to being intercepted."
Ah, that last pass. The play call was 62 Scat Flasher, which called for receiver Nate Washington to go down the middle and featured receiver Hines Ward and tight end Heath Miller in high/low backside routes. Holmes? He was the fourth or fifth option, running a curl toward the right corner of the end zone that split the coverage wide-open. Roethlisberger shuffled to his right away from the pass rush, buying himself a second or two, then heaved the ball toward Holmes -- and three Arizona defenders.
"As soon as the ball came out of my hand, I thought it was going to be intercepted," Roethlisberger said. "It was like slow motion. I knew it was intercepted. I was so mad."
Holmes planted his feet just inside the sideline and extended his arms. As Cardinals safety Aaron Francisco made contact, Holmes caught the ball and held on as he fell through the end zone. With 35 seconds left, the Steelers led 27-23 and held on for their sixth Super Bowl victory, most in NFL history -- one more than the San Francisco 49ers, the team Roethlisberger rooted for growing up.
The play has been compared to "The Catch," the Joe Montana pass to a leaping Dwight Clark to win the 1981 NFC Championship Game over the Dallas Cowboys.
"He throws that high ball at the back of the end zone," Roethlisberger remembered. "Clark goes up and catches it. I'm not taking anything from them, but what Santonio did was just as great. To get two feet in, to go up and pluck it like that ...
"People still talk about it to me, just how great that drive and that play was."
The 2007 New England Patriots were the first team in NFL history to win all 16 of their regular-season games.
The New York Giants lost their first two games, saw their head coach Tom Coughlin under repeated fire and couldn't even win their division. That's why they were 12-point underdogs in Super Bowl XLII -- the biggest line since the Patriots played the heavily favored St. Louis Rams six years earlier. You know how that one turned out.
"We were just so enamored that we had the opportunity to knock off the so-called Goliath," Giants wide receiver David Tyree said. "I guess it amounts to resolve. It amounts to what did you come here for. It amounts to the journey that started in training camp."
In the final regular-season game, the Giants gave the Patriots a fierce effort, only to lose 38-35. But they took it as a positive and put together a breathtaking string of playoff victories -- all on the road -- at Tampa Bay, Dallas and frigid Lambeau Field (minus-23 wind chill).
For the longest time in Arizona, the Patriots seemed destined to finish their season 19-0. When Giants cornerback Corey Webster fell down, Randy Moss caught a touchdown pass from Tom Brady and New England led 14-10 with 2:42 left to play.
Starting on their 17-yard line, the Giants ran seven plays, progressing to their 44 when quarterback Eli Manning and Tyree made what NFL Films' Steve Sabol called, "The greatest play the Super Bowl has ever produced."
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride made the call: 62 Max Y Sale Union, max protection.
Manning, spinning desperately, managed to elude three Patriots pass-rushers and lofted a jump ball in the direction of Tyree, who reached up and pinned the ball to his helmet with one hand. In retrospect, it is difficult to understand how Patriots safety Rodney Harrison did not dislodge the ball.
"It's slow motion for you as an athlete," Tyree said. "I'm just thinking, 'I've got to reel this thing.' I had no idea the ball was on my helmet. I had no idea where exactly it was. I just knew I had it."
The play was good -- oh, so good -- for 32 yards. Four plays later, Manning feathered a 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. Just like the Steelers' winning Super Bowl play the following year, there were 35 seconds left on the clock. The Giants went on to win 17-14.
"It goes beyond adrenaline," Tyree explained. "If there was an emotional term I tried to use after the Super Bowl, it was awe. To play an instrumental part in one of the biggest games in Super Bowl history, it was really overwhelming.
"After the Super Bowl, I said, 'If I never play another down, I will be satisfied with my career.'"
Thirty days after the turn of the millennium, the Tennessee Titans fell 3 feet short of executing that clutch championship drive.
Kurt Warner's 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce had just given the St. Louis Rams a 23-16 lead with 1:54 to play. A holding call on the ensuing kickoff pushed the Titans back to their 12-yard line.
Over his headset, Rams head coach Dick Vermeil told offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who was sitting up in the press box, to prepare for overtime.
"I told him to put his thoughts together, because our defense was hurting," Vermeil said. "They'd been on the field a long time and Tennessee's offensive line was a lot bigger than our defensive front. We were getting worn down."
Vermeil, still excitable at the age of 77, was sitting in ESPN's digital center a month ago, reliving the game of his life.
Sure enough, with quarterback Steve McNair operating out of the shotgun, the Titans moved down the field. There was time for one more play, when McNair dropped back from the Rams' 10-yard line with six seconds left.
"McNair scrambles a little bit -- I think we pushed him right -- and he throws it back to the left," Vermeil remembered. "But when the ball goes in the air, the offensive linemen all stand up. From where I'm standing on the sideline, I can't see the end of the play. So I swivel back to the side judge and I'm watching for the sign."
Vermeil, anticipating a touchdown or incomplete pass signal, was momentarily baffled when Tom Fincken made neither. That was when he realized the Rams had won.
St. Louis linebacker Mike Jones had brought down receiver Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line as time ran out. Had the Titans scored and kicked the extra point, the Super Bowl would have seen its first overtime.
"I don't know if you can really feel the full thrill of winning a Super Bowl, unless you've lost one," he said. "The same thing that went into the Eagles going to the Super Bowl -- five years of training camps and practices and games -- is the same thing the Rams did in three years.
"The Eagles actually worked harder and longer, and yet we lost."
The great quarterbacks have uncanny peripheral vision. Joe Montana's was, by all accounts, supernatural. The 49ers were losing Super Bowl XXIII to the Cincinnati Bengals in the dying minutes at Joe Robbie Stadium when Montana made a discovery.
"Standing near the exit ramp," Montana asked his tackle, Harris Barton, "isn't that John Candy?"
Indeed, it was the famous actor. The fact that the 49ers were 92 yards away from a winning touchdown with just more than three minutes remaining, didn't seem to register with the guy they called "Joe Cool." His confidence, his linemen said later, flowed through the entire offense.
Throwing those short, timing passes Bill Walsh's West Coast offense was famous for, Montana drove San Francisco down the field against Cincinnati, employing fullback Roger Craig, wide receiver Jerry Rice and tight end John Frank.
At the time, a quarterback never had driven his team the length of the field to the winning touchdown in the final minute of a Super Bowl, but on this occasion, it happened. Montana, as the 49ers got closer, began to get excited. He screamed so much, he started to hyperventilate.
After an 8-yard pass to Craig brought the ball down to the Cincinnati 10-yard line, the 49ers called timeout with 39 seconds left. Walsh and Montana agreed on the play, 20 Halfback Curl, X Up, a pass to Craig. To that point, Rice had caught 11 passes for a record 215 yards. John Taylor, the other receiver, had none.
Backpedaling, Montana spied Taylor, shaking loose from Cincinnati's linebackers, and delivered a laser into the back of the end zone for a touchdown with 34 seconds left.
The 49ers, who would win 20-16, earned their third Super Bowl title in franchise history. Eventually, there would be five gleaming Lombardi trophies in their case and Montana would retire with a reputation as one of the greatest clutch quarterbacks.
Ozzie Newsome has enjoyed a massive measure of professional success.
He was a Hall of Fame tight end with the Cleveland Browns and found a second career as an administrator. The Baltimore Ravens' general manager won his second Super Bowl ring with the team a year ago in New Orleans.
But he never played in a Super Bowl. Newsome has John Elway to blame for that. Earlier this month -- 27 years after the fact -- he recounted the Denver Broncos' 98-yard drive to tie the 1986 AFC Championship Game in overtime in remarkable (and excruciating) detail from his office in Owings Mills, Md.
"We had a good team that year," Newsome said. "We went 12-4 and won our division. Beat the Jets in the playoffs, in overtime, which gave us the opportunity to come home and play the Broncos."
Quarterback Bernie Kosar gave Cleveland a late 20-13 lead, hitting Brian Brennan with a 48-yard touchdown pass. The Broncos got the ball back on their 2-yard line with 5:43 remaining in the game.
"We got 'em right where we want 'em," Elway told his team in the huddle.
Newsome, oddly enough, was thinking the same thing.
"I felt like it was my time," Newsome said, "but I'm on the sideline, not doing anything."
Sure enough, the Broncos ran 15 plays and Mark Jackson's 5-yard catch from Elway tied the game with 37 seconds left.
"Little slant," Newsome said. "It was deflating. I learned a lot from that game. As offensive players, we should have been on the sideline getting ready to win the game. But that score took everything out of us. We got the ball back and did nothing, and then in overtime we got the ball first -- and did nothing."
Elway moved the Broncos 60 yards and Rich Karlis kicked the game-winning field goal from 33 yards with 9:22 left in overtime.
"Some say it was good, some say it wasn't," Newsome said. "We walked off the field and the Broncos were on their way to Pasadena."
And now Elway can win his third Super Bowl ring with the Broncos, his first as a member of the front office.
"It'd be just as important," Elway said on media day. "I think that to be a part of that and to be on that was a part of putting this whole thing together would be something I'd really like to do."
Bart Starr is 80 year old now, but he still gets to work just outside Birmingham, Ala., at a reasonable hour.
The television crew was setting up in his office, but in the kitchen he pulled a bottle of water from the refrigerator. Without prompting, the former Green Bay Packers quarterback described the atmosphere in the huddle of that 1967 title game when the temperature dropped to minus-13.
The ball felt like "a piece of ice," he said, laughing. "Coach Lombardi did a great job of preparing us for the game, the conditions."
Vince Lombardi, the legendary head coach, that is. The Dallas Cowboys were leading 17-14, when Starr opened the Packers' last possession on his own 32-yard line with 4:50 left. On third-and-goal at the Dallas 1-yard line with 16 seconds left, Starr called Green Bay's last timeout.
Lombardi wanted him to hand the ball to running back Donny Anderson, but Starr -- who had seen Anderson slip on the icy field on the two previous plays -- talked Lombardi into a quarterback keeper.
"Then run it," Lombardi exclaimed, "and let's get the hell out of here!"
"And I'm laughing like I am laughing now going back into the huddle," Starr said. "And I don't want the Cowboys to see me laughing."
His teammates thought the ball was going to Anderson, but Starr followed right guard Jerry Kramer into the end zone. The Packers won 21-17 and advanced to the first Super Bowl, where they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10.
"It felt wonderful," Starr said of his touchdown. "It was the greatest experience that you could imagine."