Who Would've Ever Thunk it? The Arizona Cardinals are a Win Away From the Super Bowl
In our wildest dreams, we never thought we'd be saying Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same breath. We never thought we'd be saying Arizona Cardinals and two consecutive playoff wins in the same breath.
But here Kurt Warner (pictured) and the Cardinals are, a win away from the big game in Tampa Bay on February 1.
First, though, they must take care of the Philadelphia Eagles -- 23-11 winners over the New York Giants on Sunday -- at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The Cardinals get to play the Donovan McNabb-led Eagles at home this coming Sunday 'cause they're NFC West champions and Philadelphia came into the playoffs as a wild card team. (The game starts at 1 p.m.)
Home-field advantage is what you call it, and an advantage it could be for the Cardinals; they're 6-2 in Glendale this season. The funny thing is, both of the teams that beat them at home (blew them out, actually), the Giants and the Minnesota Vikings, have been eliminated.
It's been a crazy season. While the Cardinals and Eagles are left standing in the NFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers and (another unlikely survivor) the Baltimore Ravens are still alive in the AFC.
Practically everyone's been saying all year that the Cardinals are only where they are because they play in the NFC Worst, a division where only they had a winning record. But you can throw all that talk under John Madden's bus. The Cardinals have played brilliantly in their two playoff games, beating favored Atlanta 30-24 last week and beating heavily favored Carolina 33-13 in Saturday night's divisional matchup.
And what a game it was in Charlotte in the rain. We take back almost all of the bad things we've said about Arizona's offensive line. These guys opened up holes for running backs Edgerrin James and Tim Hightower all night, and (more importantly) gave quarterback Warner all the time in the world to complete passes.
And complete them Kurt did: He went 21 of 32 and two touchdowns. He had one interception, but it didn't matter because the Cards had the game in hand by then.
Warner's main target was the unbelievable Larry Fitzgerald (pictured), who after Saturday night's performance, has to be considered the best wide-out in the game. Fitzgerald had 8 receptions for 166 yards and a breathtaking touchdown in which he broke the goal-line plane by diving and extending the ball with his left hand. He made leaping catches in heavy traffic all night that nobody else in the league could've brought down.
The Cardinals played without receiver Anquan Boldin, sidelined with a hamstring injury. Boldin's expected to be back in action this Sunday against Philadelphia, but the Cardinals may not need him. They didn't against the Panthers. Warner used an array of receivers: Steve Breaston caught four passes for 28 yards, starting in Boldin's place, James cought one for nine, and Hightower caught a three-yard toss for a TD.
As for the Cardinals' big deficiency all season (until the last two weekends) -- their running game -- James rushed 20 times for 57 yards and Hightower carried 17 times for 76 yards. If you didn't know how much the Cardinals love to pass, you'd say they had a balanced offensive attack. Again, credit the improved offensive line
The Cardinals dominated Carolina in almost every facet of the game. The defense was inspired, hassling Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme into five interceptions. On top of that, defensive end Antonio Smith forced and recovered a Delhomme fumble deep in Panthers' territory that led to a Cardinals TD. Add two sacks to that and Jake had the worst game of his pro career.
Defensive back Ralph Brown's fourth-quarter interception of Delhomme in the end zone stopped a Carolina drive and ended any chance the Panthers had of mounting a rally.
The Cardinals were up 27-7 by half-time, and settled for a couple of Neil Rackers field goals in the second half (by the way, Rackers is no delicate kicker; at one point, he made a crushing tackle on a kickoff return that probably saved a TD).
Not long after Brown's interception, the stands in Charlotte were two-thirds empty, and many of those left were booing Delhomme.
With the the Cardinals' play in the two playoff games against quality opponents (Carolina was 12-4 in the regular season and the second seed in the West), we no longer rule out seeing them in the Super Bowl. We know, we know, unimaginable, but who thought they'd be playing this well when it counts?.
The Cardinals' next opponent, Philadelphia, looked good against the Giants (seeded first in the West) and beat Arizona 48-20 back east on November 14. Running back Brian Westbrook lit up the Cards that day for 110 yards. It looked as if Westbrook couldn't be stopped in that game and many others this season. But in their losing effort in the AFC divisional game, the Giants showed that he can be contained. They held him to just 36 yards on 18 carries -- only two yards a pop.
A positive factor is that the Cardinals' defense against the run has come along in the past two games. In the Atlanta game, Falcons running back Michael Turner, maybe the best rusher in the league, was limited to 42 yards, and in the Carolina game, the Panthers' DeAngelo Williams, another stellar talent, was held to 63. Holding Williams to that yardage was a real feat, because Carolina relied primarily on its running game all season.
With those five interceptions, we can see why.
You could argue that Philadelphia's 9-6-1 regular-season record is better than the Cards' 9-7, because Philly plays in the tough NFC North, but like we say, none of that seems to matter in the playoffs. What matters is motivation, and the Cardinals have proven they've got plenty of that over the past two weekends..
The next game will feature two of of the most religious QBs in the NFL. As he was interviewed leaving the field following the victory over the Giants, McNabb started by saying, "God is great!" We just hope it's Warner who's continually pointing two index fingers up at the dome ceiling next Sunday.