TEMPE, Ariz. -- There have been differing theories, all valid, as to how and what prompted the Arizona Cardinals, especially their defense, to suddenly flip on a nasty switch and pulverize their way to playing host to Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.
There was the misery of not only getting thrashed 47-7 by New England in Week 16, but having to suffer through a delayed plane ride of indignation home. If that weren't enough, coach Ken Whisenhunt put players back in full pads for practice and told those who felt they weren't up to the rigors of full-contact workouts to sit back and watch someone else take their place.
Forced humility and questioned toughness were triggers for change, but nothing may have accelerated the rediscovery of professionalism more than watching teammates and themselves get exposed at the rawest levels of gridiron manhood.
"One of the worst things in the world was looking at the film of the New England game and seeing guys pushing us back or looking at film of the first game against Philadelphia and watching guys pretty much impose their will on us," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "We had to man up. No excuses. We all come from big schools and winning programs. There are no excuses why we can't play well. Most importantly, there are no excuses why you can't play physical."
The effect was absolute. After losing to New England, players competed with a found hunger, like a pride of lions at dinner time. There never seemed to be enough ball carrier for each defender to bite off his desired share.
There also has been a maturation process that developed from not only of the humiliation of playing poorly in a 48-20 Thanksgiving beat-down by the Eagles and the pummeling by New England, but from the stretch of recent success.
"It's not about the team that makes the biggest plays," Dockett said. "It's about the best team."
The video of being shoved around by Philadelphia's offensive line has been replayed for players in preparation for the biggest game in this franchise's history. Coaches have shown it to players and players have brought copies home to view. The footage of guys breaking assignments on the defensive line only to get overrun and causing teammates to suffer as well because of their lack of discipline or effort, is serving as fuel.
There is attention to detail now, which shows how far things have come since players thought they had it made once they earned a playoff berth with a few weeks remaining in the regular season. Things matter. They didn't matter as much when the Cardinals allowed Philadelphia, Minnesota and New England to soil their season by scoring a combined 130 points. They defeated St. Louis in Week 14 for their only win in that stretch.
"We had to grow up," defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "This is still a fairly young team. There are veterans at some key positions but if you look at the overall age of this team, we're still fairly young. There are a lot of young guys playing and playing a lot and the one thing young teams have to do is learn how to handle success as well as adversity. We got the adversity thing down pretty well. We had to learn how to handle success.
"After clinching the division, everybody kind of took a sigh of relief. For whatever reason, we were never able to pick it up until the Seattle game. That last regular season game was the turning point of the season."
Including that slump-busting, 34-21 win over the Seahawks, Arizona has allowed an average of 19.3 points and forced 12 turnovers over the last three games -- nine in the two playoff games.
The defensive line of Dockett, Berry, Antonio Smith and Bryan Robinson has provided a steady wave of disruption to allow players at the next two levels of the defense to flourish. Linebackers Karlos Dansby and Gerald Hayes have been play-making machines. The secondary, featuring safeties Antrel Rolle and Adrian Wilson, has been as good as just about any of those still playing.
Rod Woodson chat
"What's evident is that the run defense is extremely good right now, the turnover margin is high right now. The rush defense, (has) allowed 135 total yards the last two weeks. I think Clancy Pendergast has made them more aggressive. And the most aggressive defenses are usually the best defenses." Read more ...
"It's about playing lights out and being more physical than the guy in front of you," Dockett said.
In Arizona's two playoff victories, it faced run-first teams (Atlanta, Carolina) which it forced to throw the ball by clogging the line of scrimmage. Against Philadelphia, the Cardinals will face a pass-first, West Coast offense where closing the passing lanes -- some established by pre-snap splits by the offensive line -- could be just as important as limiting runs by the Eagles.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said it will be vital that the defensive linemen play without "blinders" because McNabb can extend a play by scrambling, breaking tackles or stepping into different seams of the pocket.
"We played Michael Vick a few years ago and that was a big thing that we preached, that you've got to keep your eyes on him at all times," Pendergast said. "Just don't think someone has him down until you hear the whistle because usually the first guy doesn't have him down. Donovan is the same way."
Players have executed the messages being taught and preached the past few weeks because some of the younger defenders, like rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, have matured. That's allowed rotations and personnel packages to be stabilized. That continuity has resulted in better communication and fewer breakdowns, Pendergast said.
More than anything, players have simply grasped the importance of the "moment," according to Berry, something they didn't seem to have any concept of during their late-season malaise. There hasn't been any push to come up with a slogan or mantra for the defense or one of its units, as is prone to young teams looking for a little added hype or motivation. The focus has solely been on responsibilities for each game.
"Even though this is a young team, guys understand the moment and they really embrace the moment," Berry said. "We're not leaving anything to chance going into this game. We want to make sure we turn over every stone. We want to make sure there's nothing not seen or watched, that every weight is lifted. We want to do everything we possibly can to win this football game.
"We've been capable of playing this type of football all along. We've shown it at times. We just weren't consistent with it. We've gotten back to being that team in those big games that showed up. The Cowboys game, Miami, Buffalo when they were undefeated. When there was a big challenge ahead of us, we were able to rise to the occasion. Now every game is a big game and this team really understands that they've risen to the occasion this far and there is no need to stop now."