By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009
GLENDALE, Ariz., Jan. 3 -- It had been seven years since Kurt Warner started a playoff game, the Super Bowl after the 2001 season to be exact. Yet, he didn't look all that different from his glory days with the St. Louis Rams on Saturday in throwing for 271 yards and two touchdowns to lead his Arizona Cardinals past the Atlanta Falcons, 30-24.
Warner doesn't have quite as many weapons of pass destruction as he had in St. Louis at the turn of the decade. But Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, Steve Breaston and Edgerrin James were potent enough to lead the Cardinals to their first postseason victory in 10 years, and their first at home since 1947 when the franchise was in Chicago.
Warner threw touchdown passes early to Fitzgerald and Boldin to give Arizona a 14-3 lead in this NFC first-round game. Warner's interception helped Atlanta score 17 straight points to take a 17-14 lead before halftime. But a defensive touchdown by safety Antrel Rolle and a long drive during which the Cardinals uncharacteristically ran nine times in 14 plays made it 28-17.
Warner even ran five yards to convert a third down during that drive and said afterward, "I got out of the pocket and saw the first down marker and just knew that it was a key drive for us, so I had just enough speed to hit the marker."
The Cardinals' victory sends them to either Giants Stadium to face the New York Giants or to Charlotte to face the Carolina Panthers next weekend, and came as somewhat of a surprise because the Falcons (11-5 in the regular season) had played so much better down the stretch than the Cardinals, who gave up at least 35 points in each of their last four losses.
Many around the league, considering how bad the Cardinals looked in those games, thought these were the "same old Cardinals" whose signature over the decades has been ineptitude.
"It's very gratifying to experience the lows and still be here for this high," veteran Arizona defensive end Bertrand Berry said.
Berry and the defense held Michael Turner to 42 yards rushing on 18 carries and forced rookie Matt Ryan to attempt 40 passes. Ryan tossed a pair of touchdown passes, but he also threw two interceptions, and the Cardinals' plan to commit to stopping Turner while making Ryan beat them worked.
"He's a very, very good player," Berry said of Ryan. "But obviously he hasn't seen very much yet, and obviously he hasn't played in a pressure game like this."
But Warner and James, future Hall of Famers almost certainly, had played in plenty. James carried 16 times for 73 yards and made critical contributions to Arizona's first and last scoring drives. And James's inside running worked as the perfect complement to Warner's passing.
It came two days after James acknowledged his dissatisfaction with his limited role in Arizona after years as the feature back in Indianapolis with the Colts. In fact, James's performance was something of a flashback to his time with Peyton Manning.
"Edge could have easily gone into the tank, what with not playing much in the meat of the season," his teammate Berry said. "You don't want to see a Hall of Fame running back walk out the door. He's still Edge."
It was James who, on a fourth straight first-quarter carry, flipped the ball back to Warner for the flea-flicker pass to Fitzgerald that put the Cardinals on top 7-0. Warner also hit Boldin for a 71-yard touchdown that made it 14-3. The irony is, Warner doesn't like flea-flickers.
"I hate that play," he said. "There's a lot of options, and I can't throw it very far. You're just never quite sure. Fortunately, we got them to hold just long enough, and then Larry made a great play to go up and get it. It worked in our favor today."
With the lead down to 30-24 after a Cardinals safety and a Falcons touchdown, Arizona wanted to keep Ryan and the Atlanta offense off the field but faced third and 16 at the Falcons' 46. Instead of calling a running play and punting after the two-minute warning, the Cardinals called for Warner to throw. He completed it to tight end Stephen Spach for 23 yards, and the Cardinals were able to run out the clock.
The coaches "took some chances at some critical situations, and our guys stepped up and made plays," Warner said. "It was huge."