Luck of the Draw: Arizona Cardinals vs. Atlanta Falcons in NFC First-Round Playoff on Saturday

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"Charmed" seems an odd descriptor for the 2008-09 Arizona Cardinals, who lost -- no, were crushed in -- four of their last six regular-season games. Yet here they sit, all warm and snuggly at 9-7, hosting a first-round playoff game at home in the Red Zone.

Meanwhile, a couple of teams they lost to by a combined score of 61 points -- the New York Jets and New England Patriots -- sit idly at home. The Patriots finished 11-5, and are only the second team in NFL history to finish with that record and miss the playoffs. At 2-1 odds, New England was Las Vegas' preseason fave to win the Super Bowl (then QB Tom Brady went down for the season). And heck, they thumped the Cards 47-7 only two lousy weeks ago.

That's cursed -- a karmic spanking for the Bill Belichick videotaping scandal, perhaps.

This is charmed:

Ken Whisenhunt's middling-good Cardinals handily won the NFC West, which lived down to its "NFC Worst" nickname this season thanks to two of the sorriest squads in pro ball (Seattle and St. Louis) and another mediocre showing by the San Francisco 49ers. To their credit, the Cards swept the West, 6-0.

They did it with a creaky old graybeard of a QB named Kurt "Pop" Warner.

They did it with a big, fat zero of a running attack and a porous defense that surrendered 56 points to the Jets, 48 to the Eagles, and the aforementioned 47 to the Patriots. (Quick, NFL students: What wins games? Right. Rushing and D.)

Last but not least on the count-your-blessings list is the Cards' first-round playoff draw, the Atlanta Falcons. No disrespect to the southern raptors intended. It just could've been much worse for the Cardinals than a team rebounding from a 4-12 record and a dog-fighting scandal. Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the other two first-round possibilities for the Cardinals were the Carolina Panthers (perhaps the most balanced team in the NFL) and the Dallas Cowboys (who flamed out in the end, it's true, but would've been hard-pressed to lose to the Cards twice in one year).

As things turned out, it seems fitting that our blessed flock of birds will meet the NFC's other enchanted avians, who are led in the post-Michael Vick era by a big, burly Cinderella Man named Matt Ryan. The smart-cookie rookie QB from Boston College, drafted third overall by Atlanta, was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year on December 30, and he's been mentioned in most of the conversations about league MVP, though he won't win that one. Still, get a load of these year-one numbers:

Passing percentage: 61.1. Yards: 3,440. Touchdowns: 16. Interceptions: 11. Passer rating: 87.7.

Sheesh! And though we haven't seen that much of Ryan -- Atlanta still not being much of a national draw -- we hear the numbers pale in comparison to the dude's leadership qualities and poise, things that, like rushing and defense, one can't have too much of this time of year.

Ryan and first-year Coach Mike Smith have the Falcons sitting pretty at 11-5, having won five of their last six. The Cards, despite being a division winner hosting a wild-card team in a stadium where they're 6-2, are a two-point underdog to Atlanta. Makes perfect sense to us, as does Vegas' totally valid disrespect in giving Arizona the longest odds of the 12 playoff teams to win the Super Bowl. 40-1? Might as well be 40,000-to-1, but getting to Tampa Bay hardly matters at this point, anyway.

This game makes or breaks the Cardinals' season, and that's the sort of X-factor Vegas has trouble computing. As ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd noted on his New Year's Day show, Sin City bookmakers are driven purely by a desire to make a buck. No politics. No team affiliations. No emotion. That's why Vegas is right nine out of 10 times, and the bookies' elegant dissection of the Cards/Falcons game cites Atlanta's clear superiority in playoff-critical areas such as rushing (the one-two punch of Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood), line play (the Falcons' mobile DE John Abraham versus Cards' offensive linemen Mike Gandy and Levi Brown), and special-teams play. But the nine-times-right formula makes Vegas wrong a 10th of the time, and the Cardinals have had one of those 1-in-10 kind of years (literally, if you want to go back to their most recent previous playoff berth).

On paper, Atlanta's the better team. But given the X factors -- all of which the Cardinals hold, including home field and playoff experience in key areas (QB Warner, RB Edgerrin James, head coach Whisenhunt, and assistant head coach Russ Grimm from their days with the Steelers) -- this game's a pick 'em.

Kickoff's at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium. See www.azcardinals.com. TV: NBC. Radio: KTAR-AM 620. -- Clay McNear
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