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If nothing else, this certainly wasn’t expected.
By beating the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, the Arizona Cardinals earned a trip to Super Bowl XLIII, the first time the team has ever been to one
It wasn’t exactly the easiest of routes, for sure.
By winning the tepid NFC West, where no other team finished above .500, the Cards barely made the playoffs; they were seeded fourth but lost more games then Philadelphia, the sixth seed. In the first round, they weren’t given much of a chance against the Atlanta Falcons, a young and surging team led by Matt Ryan.
In a shootout, the Cards held on to win, 24-30. Their suddenly strong defence limited Ryan to under 200 yards and picked him off twice. Kurt Warner looked years younger, throwing for over 270 yards, 100 of them to Larry Fitzgerald. Remember that name.
Next week, the Cards went on the road to face Carolina, a team who won 12 games – and four of their last five. The Panthers, a six point favourite on ESPN, were blown out, 33-13. Why? Again, the mix of a defence that was coming together and an offence that was dynamic. Again, Warner threw for two majors and for over 200 yards. Again, the defence forced turnovers – five interceptions and a fumble. Again, a convincing win.
All of a sudden, these Cards looked like a threat.
But there was a pattern beginning to form. The Cards were a team that liked to throw the ball, early and often. They liked to score as soon as they could, and they usually did. In the first half, they had 14 against Atlanta, 27 points against Carolina. And as the game wound down, they usually did too: they only scored five points combined in both of those games’ fourth quarters.
This was their weakness. If a team kept running the ball early, controlling the clock, and wound down the defence early, there seemed to be a good chance they could stage a comeback late; they just had to keep the score from getting out of hand.
On to the NFC Championship, against Philadelphia, where the same script seemed to unfold. Throughout the first half, the Cards dominated – three touchdowns to Larry Fitzgerald. Two field goals. A 24-6 lead at the half.
But the Eagles kept pounding away. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb capped off a 90-yard drive with a 6-yard pass for a major. Shortly after, he completed four of five passes to move 60 yards, and made it a one-possession game after three.
And right at the beginning of the fourth, the Eagles took the lead on a huge, 62-yard score by McNabb to DeSean Jackson. The two-point failed, but still, the Eagles led 25-24.
This is how it was going to be lost for the Cards, right? This is right about when the wheels were supposed to fall off. When Kurt Warner drops back, forces a throw to Fitzgerald who’s in triple coverage, gets picked off and the game ends. That’s what we expect, isn’t it?
But instead, Warner went short, making quick passes that got the first downs, while using their running backs to keep clock moving. If you get a chance, look at the drive: 14 plays, 72 yards and almost eight minutes eaten off the clock. It wasn’t dynamic, it wasn’t a flashy show of exhibition.
But it was smart. It kept them going, kept the Eagles off the field and make the clock the Eagles enemy. Philly ended up burning their second timeout, just to keep some time left to retaliate.
They tried, too. McNabb threw throughout the next series, and after a couple first downs had a quick three-and-out. That was pretty much it for the Eagles.
Basically, in this win, the Cardinals proved themselves, if that makes sense. Out of all their playoff games, nobody tested them as hard as the Eagles did. The Cards got out early with a great passing game, but nearly lost it all when their defence began to lapse. But intead of sticking to what was working – but would have been the wrong choice – they went back to basics, driving the ball up the middle.
This change threw off the Eagles, who were so keyed in to Warner’s arm that it cost them the game. When they began to adapt to the running game, Warner began to throw quick short passes that kept the drive alive. After testing the secondary with bombs all throughout the first, this seemed to work.
All in all, it was a well deserved win.