GLENDALE, Ariz. – One by one, the players walked through the Arizona Cardinals’ spacious locker room showing off their “Prove It” T-shirts. They might as well have been Philadelphia Eagles, too.
Is there any phrase more pertinent for today’s NFC championship game than the one adopted by the Cardinals? For both sides?
Consider, first, the NFC West champions.
The Cardinals haven’t won a league title since 1947. They hadn’t taken a division crown in 33 years before this season, when they managed it primarily by going 6-0 against weaklings San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis. In matchups with some of the NFL’s bully boys – the Giants, Panthers and Patriots – they lost by a combined 111-59.
Throw in a 48-20 Thanksgiving night roasting at Philadelphia and, well, “Prove It” indeed.
“It is a motivation thing,” linebacker Karlos Dansby acknowledged. “We have to prove to the world that we can play at this level and play at a high level and try to win on this stage.”
Even when, after clinching the division, they turned around a December swoon by beating Seattle, a common description of the Cardinals was “the worst division winner in NFL history.”
“It definitely put fuel to the fire,” Dansby said. “We were motivated, and we had a lot of poise on the defense and on the offense.”
Predicted to lose to Atlanta in the wild-card round, the Cardinals won 30-24.
But when they went to Carolina, where the Cardinals fell 27-23 during the season, and romped 33-13, getting six takeaways, well, they certainly had proved something.
“I think we have corrected some things, made less mistakes,” said Kurt Warner, one of the few Cardinals with any knowledge of championship- game surroundings. Warner, the 1999 and 2001 NFL Most Valuable Player with two trips to the Super Bowl and one win, has been a settling force for Arizona.
The Eagles were in a much more dire situation in December. While the Cardinals were trying to get straightened out before the postseason, Philly was trying to figure out how to get into the playoffs. So when the Week 17 requirements were for Tampa Bay to lose at home to the awful Raiders, and for Chicago to go to Houston and fall, and for the Eagles to beat the Cowboys in Philadelphia with the final wild-card berth on the line – Philly, well, proved it.
And after beating the Vikings and Giants in the first two rounds of the playoffs, they had set up the first conference championship game between teams that won only nine times in the regular season.
“I think this group has been very loose and that’s the way we’ve approached things for weeks,” Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb said. “I’ve been a part of a group that was tight, coming into this situation, and I’ve been a part of a team, obviously, where we didn’t know what tight was.”
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