GLENDALE, Ariz. – For a while it seemed like a cruel joke. A franchise that had gone 61 years since its last NFL title needed less than 20 minutes to blow an 18-point lead.
But these are Bizarro times in the Valley of the Sun, a parallel universe that Sunday announced itself to the world.
The Arizona Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl.
Really and truly.
Ageless Kurt Warner threw four touchdown passes, three to unstoppable wideout Larry Fitzgerald, and the last an 8-yard shovel pass to rookie tailback Tim Hightower with 2:53 remaining that pushed the Cardinals to a 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game before a sold-out and success-starved University of Phoenix Stadium crowd of 70,650.
One of the most shocking postseason runs in NFL history was eight decades in the making.
The franchise – whether in Chicago, St. Louis or the Phoenix suburbs – had won just one playoff game since capturing the 1947 NFL championship and earned its reputation as one of the most dysfunctional organizations in pro sports.
“I always thought this day would come,” said Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill, whose father bought the team in 1932. “I just didn’t know when.”
But with Sunday’s thrilling comeback, the Cardinals (12-7) won a third straight postseason game as an underdog and now will head to Tampa, Fla., to face AFC champion Pittsburgh (14-4) in Super Bowl XLIII on Feb. 1.
“I’m having a hard time even saying it right now … much less thinking about,” said safety Adrian Wilson, at eight seasons the longest-tenured starter of the NFL’s longest-tenured loser.
Funny. Just eight weeks ago, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and friends carved up the Cards 48-20 on Thanksgiving night.
“And everyone thought they were going to do exactly the same thing,” Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “But this wasn’t the same team that played that night.”
Apparently nothing about the Cardinals is the same as before.
“I want to say ‘Arizona Cardinals’ and ‘Super Bowl’ in the same sentence,” Warner crowed afterward. “I like the way that sounds. How ’bout it?”
Warner, 37, completed 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards and didn’t turn the ball over. His first three touchdowns went to Fitzgerald, who continued his all-world postseason by hauling in nine balls for 152 yards, including touchdowns of 9, 62 and 1 yard to help Arizona open a 24-6 halftime lead.
But McNabb, playing in his fifth NFC title game in eight years (and losing his fourth), rebounded from an ineffective first half to hit on 17 of 28 second-half throws for 266 yards and three touchdowns. His 62-yard scoring bomb to rookie DeSean Jackson gave Philly a 25-24 lead and silenced the crowd with 10:45 to go in the game.
At that point, the Eagles had outgained the Cards in total offense 251-29 in the second half.
“The next seven minutes made the difference,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Despite just one first down since intermission, the Cards marched with confidence, starting at their 28 and driving deep into Philly territory, converting a critical fourth-and-1 from the Eagles 49 along the way and a third-and-1 at the 14.
On third-and-goal at the 8, Warner played it safe – a field goal would have given Arizona the lead – dumping a screen to Hightower, who bobbed, weaved and slammed his way into the end zone to put the Cards up 30-25. Warner’s 2-point conversion pass to tight end Ben Patrick assured that a Philadelphia touchdown and point-after would only tie the game.
McNabb, facing a deafening din, moved his team to the Cards 47, but three straight incompletions set up a dramatic and very loud fourth-and-10.
His sideline pass to Kevin Curtis was high and wide, caroming off the receiver’s hands, sending the Cards into ecstasy and the Eagles home with another disappointing title-game finish.
“You never want it to end,” McNabb said.
The Cardinals and their fans were saying the same thing Sunday night.
Whatever happens next, it will end in Tampa. In the Super Bowl.
“Anyone who doesn’t believe it,” Dockett beamed, “just wake up and read the newspapers.”
Cardinals 32, Eagles 25
Ari—Fitzgerald 9 pass from Warner (Rackers kick)
Phi—FG Akers 45
Ari—Fitzgerald 62 pass from Warner (Rackers kick)
Phi—FG Akers 33
Ari—Fitzgerald 1 pass from Warner (Rackers kick)
Ari—FG Rackers 49
Phi—Celek 6 pass from McNabb (Akers kick)
Phi—Celek 31 pass from McNabb (kick failed)
Phi—D.Jackson 62 pass from McNabb (pass failed)
Ari—Hightower 8 pass from Warner (Patrick pass from Warner)
|Total Net Yards||454||369|
|Time of Possession||30:04||29:56|
RUSHING—Philadelphia, Westbrook 12-45, McNabb 2-31, Buckhalter 4-21. Arizona, James 16-73, Hightower 11-33, Arrington 2-(minus 4).
PASSING—Philadelphia, McNabb 28-47-1-375. Arizona, Warner 21-28-0-279.
RECEIVING—Philadelphia, Celek 10-83, D.Jackson 6-92, Curtis 4-122, Westbrook 2-26, Avant 2-23, Baskett 1-14, Buckhalter 1-12, L.Smith 1-5, Lewis 1-(minus 2). Arizona, Fitzgerald 9-152, Boldin 4-34, Pope 2-21, Urban 1-18, Arrington 1-16, James 1-16, Breaston 1-10, Hightower 1-8, Warner 1-4.
MISSED FIELD GOAL—Philadelphia, Akers 47 (WR).
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