Super Bowl 43  

 

Cardinals defy odds, dubious history to reach first Super Bowl

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GLENDALE, Ariz. - There is no way to overstate or understate or simply state it: The Arizona Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl.

The uniqueness and enormity of it should resonate, echo, as if shouted in the empty stadium dome where the Cardinals earned their first Super Bowl berth with a spectacular and gritty 32-25 victory over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship on Sunday.

Yet the eardrum-shattering cheers, music and pyrotechnics of a full University of Phoenix Stadium reflected the raw and real emotion and satisfaction of what actually happened. It was as if a massive rainstorm finally soaked the parched earth around here where bountiful fauna and sustenance had been depraved.

"I didn't know what to do," said Cardinals Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson, who had never previously celebrated anything close to this in his eight seasons with the club.

Minutes into the pandemonium, Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner raced into the stands and hugged his wife, Brenda. Defensive end Bertrand Barry seized the George Halas Trophy and raced around the field with it. Owner Bill Bidwill, who moved the franchise from St. Louis to Tempe and now to Glendale, gave all the time he could to the media, something he rarely does because he's been so vilified for fielding yearly losers that were hard to ever take seriously.

"I like the way that sounds: Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl," Warner joyously proclaimed. "The Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. How 'bout it?"

The hysteria was foreign, but once everyone was able to take a step back and narrow the scope to the victory that got them to the franchise's first Super Bowl, it was impossible not to begin and end with Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Until these playoffs, he was pretty much a star in name only, having put up big numbers on a team few saw on a national level. He rarely granted interviews because of an aversion to attention. Yet he has unveiled his greatness by getting Arizona to the biggest stage there is in pro football. In three playoff games, he has totaled 23 catches for an NFL playoff-record 419 yards and five touchdowns.

What he did against Philadelphia, though, was Michael Jordan dropping 63 on the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, Reggie Jackson going yard thrice against the Dodgers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, Usain Bolt making a mockery of Olympic sprinting. Fitzgerald had nine catches for 162 yards and three touchdowns against a superlative defense designed to stop him with a Pro Bowl cornerback (Asante Samuel).

He showed that he is one of the league's premier receivers and, in the postseason, he's also shown that there might not be any way to stop him. He's caught balls in double and triple coverage and, as Philadelphia was so bold to try, man-to-man coverage.

"It's my job," Fitzgerald said. "I want to make sure I'm accountable. If I'm not I get that death stare from Kurt and I try to stay away from that as much as possible. I just want to do my job."

Humility might be the only trait Fitzgerald possesses greater than his athletic ability.

"Great players are judged in how they play in big games and these have been the three biggest games in his career," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley, a wide-open scheme-designer and play-caller. "And in each one, I think he's played better."

The Cardinals, who won just nine games to clinch the NFC West and who have been the underdog throughout this postseason -- they likely will be in the Super Bowl as well -- didn't get here simply because of Fitzgerald, but they wouldn't be anywhere near the playoffs without him.

And once they arrived in the postseason, Fitzgerald went off against Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia, scoring touchdowns on the Falcons and Eagles on flea-flicker type passes that Haley designed to get him in man coverage. The 62-yard touchdown he scored against the Eagles in the second quarter came on a play called the "Philly Special," where Warner took a pitchback from running back J.J. Arrington and heaved it to Fitzgerald. Haley said he swiped the play from New Orleans coach Sean Peyton, who used it effectively against the Eagles years ago.

As thrilling as that play was, Arizona found itself needing a gut-check drive to win.

The Eagles, riding a gutsy effort from quarterback Donovan McNabb and a defense that couldn't get out of its own way in the first half, rallied from a 24-6 deficit to a 25-24 lead after DeSean Jackson hauled in a 62-yard touchdown pass with 10:45 remaining. Philadelphia seemed to have exerted its experience and will against a team that had gotten a little full of itself after a dominant first half.

Following jackson's touchdown, the Cardinals took possession at their own 28. Fitzgerald caught a 15-yard pass on the second play of the drive to get his team into manageable field position. Edgerrin James and his backup, Tim Hightower, then chipped into a defense that wasn't nearly as impenetrable against the run as it had been leading into this game. Still, Arizona was faced with a fourth-and-inches on its 49 with under eight minutes to play.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt saw how Philly was rolling and opted to go for it. Hightower gained 2 yards on a run and Fitzgerald followed with an 18-yard completion. By the time Hightower capped the drive with an 8-yard touchdown reception on a screen from Warner, 7:52 had been chewed off the clock.

Kevin Terrell / NFL.com
Seven years removed from his last Super Bowl appearance, Kurt Warner was vital to the Cardinals' playoff run.
Oldest starting QBs in Super Bowl history
Super Bowl Player Team Years Days
XXXIII John Elway Broncos
38
217
V John Unitas Colts
37
255
XLIII Kurt Warner Cardinals
37
224*
XXXII John Elway Broncos
37
211
XXXVII Rich Gannon Raiders
37
37
* Warner's age on Super Bowl Sunday

It was a signature drive against a team that smoked Arizona, 48-20, on Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia. Warner, who is now 3-0 in conference title games, has had several of those in his lengthy career, mostly with the St. Louis Rams, where he won a Super Bowl and lost one. But his ability to calm a youthful huddle and keep everyone accountable showed his value lies more than just in his 37-year-old arm. It was the type of leadership that, in winning this game, will continue to define Warner, despite all of his previous trials, tribulations and triumphs.

McNabb had his shot to counter. With 2:53 remaining and his team taking over on its 20 after the kickoff, this could have been his magic moment to, once again, prove his worth to a fan base that he's never seemed to win over despite going to the Super Bowl and getting his team to the conference championship five times in 10 years. He got them to Arizona's 47, but three straight incompletions left the Eagles one play and 10 yards from possibly writing a magical finish.

On fourth down, wide receiver Kevin Curtis dropped McNabb's pass. McNabb, who lives in suburban Phoenix, had to painfully witness the Cardinals celebrate history at the Eagles' expense.

"Going back out in a two-minute drill, we felt like we had an opportunity to get back and get some points," said McNabb, who was 28-of-47 for 375 yards and three touchdowns. "An unfortunate situation on that last play ... It's just opportunities, especially the way that the second half went, to go up and put yourself in position and then sitting on the sidelines just awaiting that opportunity and teams just eating up clock and trying to keep you off the field."

McNabb's critics will immediately claim he's blaming others instead of himself, but on this day, he has every right. He brought the Eagles back. Himself. He played better than he's played this postseason, but the supporting cast that has been very supportive in two prior playoff games just didn't have enough against a team, maybe, of destiny.

"It's a nice feeling but the thing is, you have to get there and you have to finish," the Cardinals' James said of playing in his first Super Bowl. "To get there is one thing -- we've got that part taken care of -- but we've got to finish."

The way this game played out was much like how Arizona's season unfolded. The Cardinals got out quickly then got comfortable and in turn, lost their way. Yet, when it mattered most, the Cardinals re-gained traction and showed they were capable of beating all comers.

Though Arizona likely will be the underdog that it's been throughout the playoffs, it could be a mistake to think they don't have a shot in the Super Bowl. It has Fitzgerald. It has gotten off the mat twice in the playoffs after losing momentum and losing a lead (Atlanta, Philadelphia). It has shown more poise and moxie than its youthful roster and its dubious history characterize.

"For all the people who were Cardinals fans since the first day we got here -- in Sun Devil Stadium in 2,000 degrees with 10,000 people -- that's huge," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "I think about that all the time. We did it. We are going to the Super Bowl."

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