Cardinals another Cinderella story
The Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays defied the odds this year
Kurt Warner added another unbelievable chapter to his story
Larry Fitzgerald proved he is the best wide receiver in the NFL
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In the clubhouse at Tropicana Field hangs a jersey that looks completely out of place. Tropicana Field is a baseball stadium, home to the Tampa Bay Rays, and the jersey is authentic Arizona Cardinals. Manager Joe Maddon keeps it framed on a wall in his office, in part because he roots for the Cardinals, and in part because he identifies with them.
The Rays and the Cardinals are like brothers who play different sports, linked by their longstanding lack of success, lack of support and seeming lack of hope. But in this bizarre season on the sports calendar, when every team seems to have a chance, the Rays and the Cardinals have turned their respective leagues upside down.
Less than four months after the Rays went to the World Series, the Cardinals are headed to the Super Bowl, after beating the Eagles on Sunday in the NFC Championship game, 32-25 (Recap | Box). What once seemed impossible is suddenly becoming routine. Los Angeles Clippers, you got next.
The Cardinals were just like the Clippers, only with more losing seasons. They had not been in a championship game since 1948, and for most of those 61 years, they had not even been in contention. This is a franchise that, before this year, had never won more than one playoff game in a season. The Cardinals were football gypsies, bouncing from Chicago to St. Louis to Arizona, and mostly finding the same dismal results everywhere they went.
So when they took a 24-6 halftime lead Sunday against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship, it seemed too easy. And, of course, it was. The Eagles scored three touchdowns in nine minutes spanning the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth, taking a one-point lead. University of Phoenix Stadium tensed with the memory of so many meltdowns past. Receiver Anquan Boldin barked at offensive coordinator Todd Haley. A fan dressed in a Pat Tillman jersey and camouflage pants charged the field. Arizona, once again, was in red alert.
"We were just trying to make it a game," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "We were trying to get the TV ratings up." Asked what he was thinking, seriously, Dockett said: "Everybody expects us to lose anyway. So we could just relax and go play."
In one drive, one unforgettable drive with nothing less than the Super Bowl at stake, the Cardinals cast aside their nerves, their demons and their whole wretched history. They covered 72 yards on 14 plays, the kind of march that can change the perception and identity of a whole franchise. On 3rd and goal from the 8, running back Tim Hightower took a screen pass from quarterback Kurt Warner, cut back to the middle of the field, stretched the ball over the goal line, and triggered a celebration that even some Cardinals players never believed they would see.
"Besides having my kids," defensive end Bertrand Berry said, "this is the best feeling I've ever had in my life."
Linebacker Chike Okeafor lay flat on his back and needed four teammates to pick him up, as though he had passed out from shock. Defensive end Antonio Smith put on his NFC champions hat and then asked, "What does it say?" as if he needed confirmation. And Warner, seven years removed from his last Super Bowl appearance with the Rams, bolted for the stands and his wife, Brenda. Next to the Warners was a sign that echoed former coach Denny Green and some of the lean old days in the desert: "We are who nobody thought we were."
"I want to say Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence," Warner said. "I like the way that sounds. Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. How about it?"
Warner has remade his career just as he has remade this team. Signed four years ago, and retained mainly to back up first-round pick Matt Leinart, Warner has written another unbelievable chapter to his personal narrative. The grocery bagger turned Arena leaguer turned Pro Bowler turned bench warmer is going back to the big top.
He threw four touchdowns Sunday and no interceptions, leaning heavily again on Larry Fitzgerald, who in the past three weeks has demonstrated with no doubt that he is the best receiver in the NFL. Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 152 yards, his third straight playoff game breaking the 100-yard barrier. No receiver in playoff history has racked up more yards than Fitzgerald in this postseason, and to think, he still has one more game to go.
The last time the Cardinals met the Eagles, on Thanksgiving Day, they were blown out 48-20. They gathered Saturday and watched tape of that game, seething with every missed block and botched play: "It was disgusting," Dockett said. It was also inspiring. The Cardinals jumped on the Eagles as if every one of them had waited 61 years for the chance.
Conveniently enough, this year's Super Bowl is being held in Tampa, so the Cardinals should feel right at home. Chances are, at least a few of the Rays and a few thousand of their fans will be there to root the underdog on.
MORE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP
RECAP: Cardinals upend Eagles 32-25
VIDEO: Relive the NFC title game