Cardinals running back Tim Hightower tries to fend off Vikings defensive… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)
One game into the 2009 season -- a disheartening home loss to San Francisco -- and the Arizona Cardinals were finished, history, kaput.
Or so most of us thought.
After all, eight of the previous 10 Super Bowl losers had missed the playoffs the following season -- and why would the Cardinals be any different? Besides, the last time they made the postseason, in 1998, they promptly tumbled off the table the next fall.
So nobody could really argue with Fox's Jimmy Johnson when, during the Week 2 pregame show, he said the Cardinals were toast.
"I know it's just one game, but stick a fork in them, they're done," he said at the time. "They lost a couple outstanding coordinators. They've got disgruntled receivers and a quarterback that's just a couple years younger than me and he's hurt. With their schedule, it'll be tough for them to win three games by midseason."
That's not to pick on Johnson, who has a Super Bowl ring for each hand. Heaven knows we've all made predictions that have blown up in our faces (See: weekly picks, Farmer). He merely put to words what just about everyone was thinking, that the Cardinals would fade to black.
Of course, they've done nothing of the sort. The Cardinals (8-4) have won four of five, and can clinch the NFC West with a victory Monday at San Francisco. Most remarkable, quarterback Kurt Warner has registered a 120-plus passer rating in each of his last four starts. Only Johnny Unitas in 1965 has equaled that feat, and nobody has strung together five such outings in a row.
We should have known it would be Warner who would sidestep the Super Bowl hangover, a player who has pulled off the improbable, the unlikely, the downright unbelievable throughout his career.
"I understand why everybody was looking for us to collapse, waiting for it," Warner said Thursday in a phone interview. "We hadn't done anything. We were a 9-7 team [last season] that was very inconsistent, that got on a roll at the right time and played some great football. We had some talent, but we've had some talent here for a long time. The biggest question has always been consistency."
By the end of the 2008 regular season, the Cardinals were as flawed as any playoff team in history. They were 0-5 on the East Coast. They had the league's worst running game. They had dropped four of their last six games -- including a couple of December debacles: a 35-14 loss to Minnesota, and a 47-7 humiliation at New England.
Then, as we all saw, the Cardinals got hot in the playoffs, located that consistency they had been searching for, knocked off three opponents, and came within two minutes of beating Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
This year, Arizona is a far more balanced and multi-dimensional team. The Cardinals have an excellent passing game, of course, but also an improved ground attack, and an offensive line and defense that played remarkably well in Sunday night's unexpected 30-17 thrashing of Minnesota.
The Vikings, who lead the NFL with 40 sacks, were shut out in that department against the Cardinals, even though Arizona had a backup left tackle making his first career start at that position. The Cardinals' defense, meanwhile, sacked Brett Favre three times and forced him into two interceptions.
"We're playing more complete football now than we did at any time last year," Warner said. "We played at a pretty high level in that playoff run, but I feel like we've been doing that a lot more this year than we did last year. And that's what excites you.
"When we put it together and play, we can play with anybody."
Should we really be startled that Warner has put the Cardinals in this position? A player who during the course of his career directed two franchises -- St. Louis, then Arizona -- from the scrap heap to the Super Bowl?
Should we be surprised that his knees didn't wobble at the reminder of a long-standing Super Bowl jinx?
Warner isn't the type to believe in jinxes. If he did -- as Cardinals media relations man Mark Dalton astutely points out -- why in the world would he wear the jersey he does?