BRENDA WARNER was walking across a carpet of confetti at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday when she came face-to-face with her husband's latest band of misfits. The team owner, in red bow tie, was standing near the star receiver, in dreadlocks, who was just across the way from a tattooed lineman. At last Brenda spotted her husband standing off to the side of the makeshift stage. Kurt Warner's hair was tousled and gray at the temples. An NFC CHAMPIONS T-shirt covered his Arizona Cardinals jersey. Behind him, held aloft by his teammates, the George Halas Trophy bobbed like a buoy in an ocean of hands. "I can't believe this is happening again," Brenda said. � Just weeks ago no one would have predicted another Super Bowl appearance for the 37-year-old Warner, or a first Super Bowl ever for the Cardinals, who overcame the Philadelphia Eagles 32--25 in the NFC Championship Game and punched their tickets to Tampa, where they'll face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 1.
On Thanksgiving night Philly beat Arizona by four touchdowns. On Dec. 21, two weeks after the Cardinals had clinched the pedestrian NFC West, Arizona lost to the Patriots by 40 points in the snow in Foxborough. " New England's coaches were up in the box counting how many of our guys were around the heaters," says Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "And I saw it happening on the sideline. I look around, and everybody is huddled around the heaters."
It was after that game, as the Cardinals endured flight delays and a refueling stop before arriving home 6 � hours late, that Arizona's outlook began to change. Coach Ken Whisenhunt dismissed the players for two days, and in the first practice back before the season finale, he shook things up. Whisenhunt, who spent six seasons in Pittsburgh as a Steelers assistant, cranked up the intensity. He ordered the players into helmets and pads. He shouted at his players on the field. Haley, raised at the knee of Bill Parcells with the Jets and Cowboys, was even more vociferous. "I went crazy in the offensive room," Haley says. "I said, 'It's not going to stay the same. They're either going to run me out of here, or I'm looking to run anybody out of here I can.'"
Profanity and percussive hits echoed across the practice field in Tempe. Whisenhunt and Haley beat the toughness back into players who'd gotten away from the things that had led the team to a 7--3 start.
Now they've slashed and slugged their way past three straight NFC opponents and stand one win from their first NFL championship since 1947, when the team played in Chicago and owner Bill Bidwill was a ball boy for the club. To earn their first Lombardi Trophy, though, they'll have to beat one of the league's most physical teams—and one they've tried to model themselves after.
"When [ Cardinals president] Michael Bidwill and I set out to find a coach [in 2007], we wanted to mirror that Steeler-type football," say general manager Rod Graves. What better place to look than in Pittsburgh? They hired Whisenhunt, the Steelers' offensive coordinator. He brought with him Pittsburgh offensive line coach Russ Grimm, and to run the offense he hired Haley, who's also steeped in Steelers tradition: His father, Dick, played defensive back for Pittsburgh in the '60s and was the Steelers' player personnel director from 1971 to '90; Todd was a ball boy for the Super Bowl teams of the '70s. "He's demanded toughness," Graves says of Whisenhunt. "There has been accountability, and our players have responded to that leadership."
That the Cards could respond with such force against a defensive power like the Eagles speaks to their resolve and ingenuity. One play in particular stands out. Haley knew Philly's run-stopping defensive backs would be eager to attack the line of scrimmage, so he spent the previous week preparing a play called Philly Special, a flea-flicker he'd used in Dallas. Third-string QB Brian St. Pierre was given the task of studying film to determine the best moment to unveil the trick play against the Eagles' No. 3--ranked defense. With the Cards at their own 38, leading 7--3 and beginning their opening drive of the second quarter, St. Pierre turned to Haley on the sideline. "Philly Special," St. Pierre said.
"That was all I needed," Haley said.
Warner took the snap and pitched the ball to running back J.J. Arrington, who started to run wide right. As defenders closed in, Arrington tossed the ball back to Warner on the left as wideout Larry Fitzgerald sped past safety Quintin Demps. Warner launched the pass just before Brodrick Bunkley laid into him. Near the 10-yard line, Demps spun and fell as Fitzgerald corralled the ball for a 62-yard TD and a 14--3 lead. "That was a play we had seen on tape get past Philadelphia in past years, and we thought we could hit them with it," said Fitzgerald, who finished with nine catches for 152 yards and three touchdowns. "We know their safeties like to hit hard on the run, coming up and supporting. I was able to get behind the safety, and Kurt threw the ball up and allowed me to go up there and find it."
That formula has worked well all month: Fitzgerald's 419 receiving yards in the playoffs are the most by anyone in a single postseason—and he still has a game to go. Haley's had a big hand in the fifth-year wideout's ascendance, constantly pushing Fitzgerald not to coast on his abundant ability. This season he's been taken out of his comfort zone near the sidelines. "I've said [to him], Don't be a one-trick pony," says Haley. "It's obvious that if you throw him the ball outside the numbers, he's going to make the play. This year we've moved him around much more, put him in the slot and in formations new to Larry. It's a different ball game because you've got coverages coming from two directions. He's gotten better every week. When he tells me, 'I want to thank you, Coach, for keeping your foot on my throat the last two years,' that means something."