By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009
GLENDALE, Ariz., Jan. 18 -- The Arizona Cardinals have completed their startling transformation from laughingstock into powerhouse. They made all the plays early and a few big ones late to beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-25, Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium and turn the franchise's first NFC title game appearance into its first Super Bowl visit.
Rookie running back Tim Hightower scored an eight-yard touchdown on a pass from quarterback Kurt Warner with 2 minutes 53 seconds left after the Cardinals had squandered a 24-6 halftime lead to trail, 25-24.
The Cardinals added a two-point conversion and held on in the final moments, and a team that began this season having managed only one winning season and one playoff appearance since 1984 punched its ticket to Tampa to appear on the sport's biggest stage.
"It feels really good," said Hightower, a product of Episcopal High School in Alexandria. "We had a lot of ups and downs all season. We've been at the highest point you can be. We've also been at the lowest point a few times. In a game like this, you have to stay steady, and that's what we did."
The Cardinals shoved aside years of ineptitude and the ridicule, and Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald led the way. Warner secured his third career Super Bowl appearance, having been there twice during his glory years with the St. Louis Rams, by completing 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns. Three of the touchdowns, all in the first half, went to Fitzgerald, who finished with nine catches for 152 yards.
"All that really matters," Fitzgerald said, "is that the people in this locker room believed in us."
The Eagles made a game of it. Quarterback Donovan McNabb threw a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes to tight end Brent Celek, then connected with rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson for a long touchdown pass that put the Eagles in front with 10:45 left.
But the defense couldn't stop the Arizona offense, and the Eagles' final two possessions ended with fourth-down incompletions -- the first on a play that left the Eagles pleading for a pass interference call they didn't get, the second a last-gasp lateral that was intercepted by the Cardinals.
McNabb threw for 375 yards and three touchdowns on 28-for-47 passing. But he threw an interception and lost a fumble. Place kicker David Akers missed a field goal and an extra point, and the Eagles lost for the fourth time in their five appearances in the NFC championship game during the 10-year tenure of Coach Andy Reid and McNabb.
"They all hurt," Reid said. "You have different guys. Every team is different. [But] they all hurt. They hurt the players. They hurt the coaches."
The Eagles had overwhelmed the Cardinals, 48-20, on Thanksgiving night in Philadelphia. Reid and his players said during the week that they expected to see a different Cardinals team in this game. They didn't know how right they were. Fitzgerald had six catches for 113 yards and the three touchdowns in the first half alone. He had his fifth straight 100-yard receiving game, the last three of which have come during these playoffs.
Fellow Pro Bowl wideout Anquan Boldin was back in the lineup Sunday after missing the Cardinals' triumph at Carolina in an NFC semifinal because of a strained hamstring muscle. But it was all about Fitzgerald. After leading, 27-7, at halftime at Carolina, the Cardinals had an 18-point cushion at the intermission Sunday.
The Eagles weren't getting to Warner, except when they were penalized for a couple of late hits, and Warner was finding Fitzgerald. The Cardinals took the opening kickoff and moved straight down the field for a touchdown. Fitzgerald scored from nine yards out when he caught Warner's pass on a crossing pattern and bounced off two Eagles defenders en route to the end zone. The Eagles responded with a 45-yard field goal by Akers.
The Eagles got a break when McNabb threw an interception but safety Aaron Francisco lost a fumble at the end of his return. But Akers missed a 47-yarder, and the Cardinals needed only one play to make it 14-3. Warner pitched the ball to running back J.J. Arrington, who stopped and threw the ball backward to Warner as Fitzgerald sprinted down the field against Eagles safety Quintin Demps. Warner delivered the pass. Demps slipped and fell. Fitzgerald made the catch and coasted into the end zone for a 62-yard touchdown.
Akers connected from 33 yards, but the Cardinals just kept going. They got a first down at the Eagles 1-yard line on a pass interference penalty, and scored on the next play on Warner's well-placed lob to Fitzgerald. The Eagles got lucky again when the Cardinals appeared to recover the ball on a mishandled kickoff but the officials ruled that the ball had landed out of bounds. No matter. The Eagles punted and the Cardinals got a 49-yard field goal by kicker Neil Rackers as time expired in the half.
McNabb lost a third-quarter fumble on a sack by blitzing Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson. But Arizona couldn't cash in, and the Eagles got to within 24-13 on McNabb's six-yard pass to Celek. The Cardinals punted and the Eagles got closer. McNabb found Celek open in the middle of the field for a 31-yard touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter, but Akers yanked the extra point wide right.
The Arizona offense continued to sputter and the Eagles had the lead soon thereafter. McNabb rolled to his right and unloaded a deep pass toward Jackson. Rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie got his hands on the ball, but Jackson made a juggling catch on the carom for a 62-yard touchdown that put the Eagles in front. They missed a two-point conversion try, though, and the Cardinals had a reply.
"The biggest thing is not panicking," Cardinals Coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "and that's what I saw from our team."
Hightower ran for six yards on a fourth-and-one play from the Eagles 49-yard line, then weaved his way into the end zone after catching a screen pass from Warner on third and goal from the Eagles 8.
"You can't ask to be in a better situation than to have your number called with the game on the line," Hightower said. "You have to be ready. It's an honor to be a rookie and have the coaches call that for you."