By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, January 4, 2009
GLENDALE, Ariz. A sorry, regrettable piece of NFL history was tucked away here yesterday afternoon. After 61 years, the NFL Cardinals of Chicago, St. Louis and Arizona not only played host to a playoff game, they won one.
The Cardinals, left for dead weeks ago during a string of amateurish and lopsided defeats, did the stuff they're known to do, like throwing the ball beautifully, and some things they rarely resort to, like running the ball and playing resourceful, turnover-forcing defense.
The latter made Atlanta's Matt Ryan look like the rookie he is on just enough occasions to matter, and the Cardinals took a 30-24 first-round NFC playoff victory against the Falcons. The Cardinals had several heroes in winning their first playoff game in 10 years, but none was more surprising than Edgerrin James, the old warhorse of a back who did the tough running that made Kurt Warner's passing ability an even greater weapon.
A 23-yard-pass completion on third and 16 with only 2 minutes 17 seconds to play, a time in the game when most teams would simply have run a conservative play and punted, sealed Arizona's victory. "We can't do that," Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald said, "if we don't run the ball early in the game."
The victory was hardly dominating, but the Cardinals did demonstrate they can excel in just about every phase of the game, which is quite an achievement for a franchise that usually demonstrates nothing more than ineptitude in every phase. And it came at the end of a week in which the Cardinals had to tune out so much, from their end-of-season meltdown to nearly having a playoff game blacked out on local television.
"We heard it all," veteran defensive end Bertrand Berry said, "from, 'Same old Cardinals' to 'They should have to give up their playoff spot.' But what happened today shows . . . I can say this now: We are who I thought we were."
The Cardinals will now try to show they can be that again next week in either Giants Stadium or Charlotte in an NFC second-round game.
Two playoff games in one postseason for the Cardinals is almost unheard of. If the Cardinals aren't the single most pathetic team in American professional sports over the last 75 years they're on a very, very short list with the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Clippers. And the Cardinals really could be atop that list, considering the franchise is a charter member of the NFL, yet the team has played in only eight playoff games . . . ever. They hadn't won a playoff game in 10 years and hadn't hosted one since 1947 . . . when the Cardinals played in Chicago.
The franchise actually went 0-for-St. Louis when it came to hosting playoff games, and was 0-for-20 years in Arizona before Saturday's visit from the Falcons. And even though fans in the Valley of the Sun have known for a month that there would be a playoff game here, the NFL had to extend the TV blackout deadline twice to ensure the game would be televised locally. An area pool supplies business bought a chunk of tickets early in the week, and still 3,700 tickets remained on Friday. Fitzgerald, one of the team's most popular players, even made an appearance at a cellphone store during the week to hawk tickets.
The easy-to-stomach reason was that the economy has hit Phoenix so hard that folks just didn't have money to spend in the days immediately after the holidays. But the more cynical view was that the locals still didn't trust the team, particularly the Bidwill family, which has owned the franchise forever, to field more than a one-and-done team.
The Cardinals feasted on perhaps the worst division in football, going 6-0 in NFC West games, with four division wins helping them reach 7-3. And all over town the campaign started to buy into the "new Cardinals." But by surrendering at least 35 points in each of their last four losses, the question was whether they were the same old Cardinals dressed up by a wonderfully entertaining passing game and the single best receiver in football, Fitzgerald. Their 9-7 record was built on such a creampuff schedule that it led to the Falcons, even with a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback, being favored on the road, which of course the Cardinals took as a personal insult.
In that way, the whole team probably felt like James, who believes he has been ignored while the Cardinals' coaching staff hands more of the load to Tim Hightower, the rookie out of Richmond.
Warner passed for 271 yards and two touchdowns, and limited himself to one interception that Atlanta used to score. But Arizona needed something extra, something that summoned power and served to calm a neophyte playoff team. That something was James, whose contribution (16 carries for 73 yards) was a bit of a stunner. On Thursday night, James was brutally candid in a conversation about his future with the Cardinals. He acknowledged Saturday's playoff game would probably have been his last in Arizona if it had been a loss. He hates the way he has been used (only 11 carries during one eight-game stretch) and feels he's got plenty in the tank, though he's 30 years old with more mileage than an '88 Volvo.
James, though he was gone from Indianapolis by the time the Colts won a Super Bowl, should nonetheless wind up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, seeing as one more season will likely allow him to wind up seventh on the all-time NFL rushing list. Already, James is 11th overall and seventh all-time in 100-yard rushing games. That résumé, though, was built in Indy.
This, however, could be a pretty nice final entry on that document. On Arizona's second series, James carried for six yards, then nine yards, then five more. On what appeared to be a fourth consecutive carry, James ducked into the line and flipped the ball back to Warner, who fired deep to Fitzgerald, who made a catch straight out of the Lynn Swann scrapbook for a 7-0 Cardinals lead.
And late in the third quarter, after losing the lead, the Cardinals were back up, 21-17, when James ran four times and caught a pass during the 14-play, 76-yard touchdown drive that gave them some breathing room at 28-17.
James wasn't about to back off his stance after the game. "It's no secret to what kind of runner I am," he said. "Finally, I was put in a position to actually do that. If my number is called, I'm going to come up big."
James's confidence extends beyond just himself. Of the Cardinals, who have the best trio of receivers (Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston) and a future Hall of Fame quarterback, James said: "We have all the talent in the world right here. We're supposed to win."
Still, the Cardinals can be alarmingly mediocre on both sides of the ball, which seemed to be the case when the defense looked rather helpless as the Falcons turned a 14-3 deficit into a 17-14 lead by putting together three drives that consumed 34 plays while the Cardinals were running just six.
But the Cardinals regained control by doing something we've come to associate with the Giants or Patriots in the postseason, certainly not the Cardinals. "A lot of people, coming into this game," Coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "said that we were the worst playoff team to ever get in . . . and I think we rallied around that."