GLENDALE, Ariz. — Down and out for decades, the Arizona Cardinals have turned a bad joke into a Super Bowl-bound team.
Yes, the Cardinals, founding members of the NFL, but historically among the most dysfunctional of franchises, are heading for the championship game in Tampa.
Capitalizing on Larry Fitzgerald’s three first-half touchdown receptions, then coolly marching downfield to Kurt Warner’s 8-yard scoring pass to rookie Tim Hightower with 2:53 left, they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 Sunday for the NFC championship.
“I want to say Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence,” a jubilant Warner said. “The Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. How about it?”
Arizona (12-7) will face the AFC champion in two weeks in Tampa for the NFL title. Baltimore played at Pittsburgh later in the day for the AFC crown.
“To make it to the Super Bowl and to have a chance, an opportunity to win it, you relish those moments in your career,” said safety Adrian Wilson, the longest-tenured Cardinal. “This being my eighth year, and to be in this organization at this time with these players and these coaches, it’s a great moment.”
A stunning moment that nearly didn’t happen. Donovan McNabb was superb in leading Philadelphia’s second-half rally from 18 points down to a 25-24 lead, but after Hightower’s score, he misfired from midfield four times in the final moments.
If the Cardinals, the first No. 4 seed to host a conference championship game, were supposed to be thunderstruck by their surroundings, they instead responded like playoff veterans.
Sure, they blew that 24-6 halftime lead. But then the 37-year-old Warner, a Super Bowl MVP from almost a decade ago with the St. Louis Rams, engineered a precise, 72-yard drive to win it with his fourth TD pass of the day.
He finished the comeback with the 8-yard pass to Hightower, then hit Ben Patrick for the 2-point conversion.
“The demeanor in the huddle didn’t change at all,” Fitzgerald said. “The guys were focused and ready to go. You could see the look in guys’ eyes. Nobody wanted to be the guy who let this team down. Everybody did their job when we needed them to do it.”
But the key was the unstoppable Fitzgerald, who had nine receptions for 152 yards, including two big catches on the decisive drive. The All-Pro set a single postseason record with 419 yards receiving, surpassing the great Jerry Rice. And Fitzgerald has one more game to go — in the Super Bowl.
Can you imagine?
They surely never looked this good before in the Phoenix area, or their previous homes in Chicago and St. Louis.
“I want to say thanks to all of you guys,” Warner told the crowd during postgame celebrations that included streams of confetti spewed into the air and the obligatory “We are the Champions” blaring. “When nobody else believed in us, when nobody else believed in me, you guys did and we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
Blown out by the Eagles 48-20 on Thanksgiving, coach Ken Whisenhunt’s team looked completely different in its first title game since 1948.
“And it was appropriate we had a bunch of different people make those plays, and it was a great team win for us,” said Whisenhunt, who in two seasons as coach as turned a losing culture into a championship environment.
With playoff victories over Atlanta, Carolina and the Eagles (11-7-1), this is the Cardinals’ winningest season. They’ve already surpassed their total of postseason wins dating back to when the playoffs began in 1933.
The most attention paid to the Cardinals since moving here in 1988 came on a sad note — when star safety Pat Tillman suddenly retired in 2002 to join the Army Rangers, and was later killed in Afghanistan.
“It’s been a tough number of years here in Arizona,” Whisenhunt admitted.
The last NFC team since the 1970 merger to make it this far, Arizona also is the first team with nine wins in the regular season to make the Super Bowl since the 1979 Rams lost to the Steelers.
For the favored Eagles, it was another disappointing end. Coach Andy Reid’s team reached the NFC title game five times in the last eight seasons, losing four. They lost to New England in their only Super Bowl appearance during that run.
“You never want anything to end, and you don’t see it ending,” McNabb said. “To end this way, it’s tough, when you’re that close to making the Super Bowl.”
This one looked like a romp through the Valley of the Sun for the hosts at halftime. The Eagles knew Fitzgerald was Arizona’s most dangerous player, but they couldn’t slow him down.
“You’ve just got to play it play by play and try to shut him down each play,” linebacker Akeem Jordan said.
“He’s been on fire,” fellow Cardinals wideout Anquan Boldin said, “running wide open, making big plays. He played like a man among boys.”
In the second half, though, Philadelphia brought more pressure on Warner. The Cardinals gained only 8 yards in the third quarter, while McNabb hit Brent Celek for touchdowns of 6 and 31 yards.
McNabb, who once this season got benched after a terrible opening half, had come alive with a fury, even silencing the crowd for a while. His 62-yard heave to rookie DeSean Jackson was tipped by cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into Jackson’s hands near the goal line with 10:45 to go.
Shockingly, Philadelphia was on top 25-24.
Time for Warner to show his pedigree on a drive that took nearly 8 minutes and carried the Cardinals to victory.
For the well-traveled Warner, the win was his third in as many NFC title contests. He led the 1999 and 2001 Rams to the Super Bowl — he was league MVP both years and St. Louis went 1-1 in those Super Bowls — before his career faded.
But the resurrected Warner has been sensational this season, and now he’s led the Cardinals far beyond any previous success since moving to Arizona.
He finished 21-for-28 for 279 yards and the four TDs.
McNabb was 27-for-46 for 375 yards.
Arizona certainly wasn’t awed by the pressurized atmosphere at the start, marching 80 yards in nine plays for a 7-0 lead. Warner hit all four passes and Fitzgerald, the NFC’s leading receiver, bounced off Brian Dawkins — Philly’s fiercest hitter — and barely got into the end zone.
McNabb got the Eagles going on their first offensive play, a 22-yard scramble that was his longest run since Week 16 of 2007. But the deafening noise in the stadium caused a motion penalty that stymied the drive, and David Akers extended his NFL postseason record with a 45-yard field goal, his 19th straight.
The Cardinals’ playoff penchant for takeaways got them the ball back, momentarily. Aaron Francisco intercepted a tipped pass and headed down the right side, but was stripped on the runback by Jackson and Philadelphia recovered at its 25, a loss of 8 yards in all.
Given another chance, the Eagles moved to the Arizona 29, only to see Akers’ string end with a 47-yarder that went wide right. Seconds later, the Cardinals unveiled the flea-flicker.
Warner pitched to J.J. Arrington, who then lateraled back to the quarterback. His long popup pass found Fitzgerald after defender Quintin Demps fell.
Undaunted, McNabb connected on a short pass with Kevin Curtis, who sped 47 yards diagonally across the field with most of Arizona’s defenders giving chase. He was caught at the 19, setting up Akers’ 33-yarder.
Still, trading field goals for touchdowns wasn’t going to get Philly to Tampa.
Actually, nothing was going to help the Eagles as long as they couldn’t cover Fitzgerald. And they couldn’t come close in the first half.
Fitzgerald finished his spree with a 1-yard TD catch against overmatched cornerback Sheldon Brown.
But that was it for Fitzgerald for a long spell, although Neil Rackers made a 49-yard field goal as the half expired.