Lo and Behold! The Arizona Cardinals Are Going to the Super Bowl Against the Pittsburgh Steelers
It was fourth and inches late in the fourth quarter, and it wasn't the play we would've called with our team down 25-24 in the NFC Championship.
But two running plays up the middle had yielded next to nothing. Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner takes the snap and hands off to Tim Hightower (pictured), who bolts toward the right side. Everybody wearing red in University of Phoenix Stadium is holding their breath.
The dreadlocked Hightower's nearing the sideline. Will he be fast enough to turn the corner before he runs out of room? Suddenly, he makes a hard left and picks up three yards before running out of bounds. First down!
It was gutsy play, one that can make a genius or a retard out of an offensive coordinator. But Todd Haley was Albert Einstein on Sunday afternoon, because, a few plays later, the Cards were in the end zone.
Again, it was on a big play by Hightower. After another two runs that went nowhere, Warner hit Hightower on a shovel pass over the middle and he muscled in for the score. Then came the capper -- a Warner pass up the gut to tight end Ben Patrick for the two-point conversion.
Nobody on the Eagles was expecting Patrick, who was only playing because of an injury to starting tight end Stephen Spach, to get the call in such a clutch situation.
Cardinals 32, Philadelphia Eagles 25.
Still, the Eagles and quarterback Donovan McNabb had 2:46 left in the game to mount a drive. Would Arizona's defense hold? More held breath.
Neil Rackers (who had nailed a 49-yard field goal in the second quarter) kicked off to the back of the end zone for a touchback, and Philly started on their own 20. McNabb drops back and throws. Incomplete. He drops back and passes again. Incomplete. Again, incomplete. Now it's fourth down. The Eagles have no choice but to go for it. Arizona's up by 7, and only a touchdown will send the game into overtime.
McNabb lets it fly a fourth time in a row. Quiet comes over the stadium as the ball sails to the right sideline. Cornerback Roderick Hood covers, and it looked for a second like he may have touched Eagles receiver Kevin Curtis before the ball arrived. Curtis misses the pass. No interference call. Whew!
The Cardinals take over, and manage a first down before faltering and having to punt. But, by that time, only 15 seconds is left. The punt goes out of bounds deep in Philly territory, and all McNabb & Co. could do was attempt the old hook-and-ladder play. After several passes and laterals, the ball pops up and Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett intercepts. Dockett scampers a few yards and is tackled as time runs out.
Madness erupts, on the field and in the stands, with a dense fog of red and white confettti dropping from the domed ceiling. Men are kissing men, and they aren't even gay. More than a few people swoon.
Soon afterward, seemingly stunned 77-year-old Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill's getting presented the George S. Hallas NFC Championship Trophy by former Pittsburgh Steelers great, four-time Super Bowl champion, and Fox Sports commentator Terry Bradshaw.
When it's Coach Ken Whisenhunt's time to be congratulated by Bradshaw, the Hall of Fame ex-Steelers QB tells the Whiz that he'd picked the Cardinals on Fox's pre-game show just before flying from L.A. to Phoenix to present the game trophy.
"It's about time!" yelled the grinning second-year coach, himself the former offensive of the Steelers when they won Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season.
It was an afternoon that practically nobody in the Phoenix metropolitan area thought would ever come, much less anybody around the country. After Hightower's score, TV cameras panned over to a fan holding up a sign that read: "We are who we thought we were."
The reference was a takeoff on former Cardinals Coach Dennis Green's much-ridiculed comment after the Chicago Bears were able to mount an improbable come-from-behind victory against the Cards just three years ago ("They're who we thought they were"). And it reminded everybody watching how far the Cardinals have come from those sorry days under the moronic Green.
The main reason's Whisenhunt and the staff he's hired, including Haley and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. It's also because the Bidwill family, known forever as probably the cheapest owners in the game, decided to acquire a money head coach and some big-money players.
None more vital to this season's Cardinals than wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who ironically was drafted by Denny Green, who knew Fitz when he was a ball boy for the Minnesota Vikings where Green was then coaching.
Fitzgerald caught three touchdown passes in the first half. That was a TD reception in three of the Cards' first four possessions -- and included one of his patented, sure-handed leaping grabs, this one for 62 yards.
The flea-flicker-play reception was the highlight-reel catch of the game: Warner had tossed the ball to running back J.J. Arrington, who passed it back to Warner, who went deep to Fitzgerald for the six points. Fitzgerald finished the game with 9 catches and 152 yards.
It looked like a blowout after the Cardinals led 24-6 at the end of the first half. But the Eagles came back strong in the third period. After mounting two drives for touchdowns in the third,, McNabb hit DeSean Jackson for 65 yards and a score to take a one-point lead with 10:45 left in the fourth. Philly Coach Andy Reid decided go for two, but the Eagles couldn't convert.
Fourteen plays and 72 yards later, the Cardinals were in the end zone for the final time, and the one-TD gap is how it wound up.
One major element in the win was Arizona's running game -- which, not long ago, was nonexistent. The Cardinals rushed for 102 yards, 73 of them by future Hall of Famer Edgerrin James and the rest by Hightower. Credit great play by the maligned offensive line, who busted open holes in Philly's defense for James and Hightower and gave Warner enough time to go 21 for 28 and 4 touchdowns.
Another was the Cardinals' defense. Coodinator Pendergast kept his guys focused and fearsome for most of the game. Except in the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, Cards defenders pretty much shut down the Eagles, sacking McNabb twice and intercepting him once.
A trivia point: The last time the (Chicago) Cardinals were in the NFL championship game (it wasn't called the Super Bowl back then), they beat the Eagles by a touchdown, 28-21. Bill Bidwell, whose father owned the team, was a Cardinals water boy.
Now, the Arizona Cardinals will be off to Super Bowl XLIII to play the Steelers, who defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 Sunday night in the AFC Championship game. The biggest game of them all's February 1 in Tampa Bay. Like we've said for the past three weeks, who would've thunk it? Not Vegas, not us, only Terry Bradshaw.
That humiliating 47-7 blowout Arizona suffered in the sleet and snow against the New England Patriots on December 21 seems soooo long ago now.