LISA DILLMAN AND GLENDALE, ARIZ. — The Arizona Cardinals were skipping like giddy children released from school, practically bouncing down the tunnel on the way to their locker room, buffeted by the uncommon wall of sound at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
So what if graduation day took, oh, about 61 years?
It's not often you hear the year 1947 stated around an NFL team, but that was the last time the Cardinals had played a home playoff game and that was back when they were in Chicago.
The years melted away Saturday as Arizona defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 30-24, in an NFC wild-card game behind two touchdown passes from Kurt Warner and scoring contributions from the defense, which accounted for a touchdown (Antrel Rolle's 27-yard fumble return 52 seconds into the second half) and a fourth-quarter safety.
Atlanta rookie Matt Ryan had a rough playoff debut, throwing two interceptions and getting tackled for the safety. Warner was 19 for 32 for 271 yards, and Ryan was 26 for 40 for 199 yards
Even the Cardinals understood the strong air of doubt in Arizona. They had stumbled into the playoffs, losing four of their last six games, and finished the regular season 9-7. And ticket sales were not as robust as had been expected with the local TV blackout not lifted until late Friday.
"Everybody said we had opportunities to win this game, but I don't know about anyone who would pick us," said receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught a 42-yard pass from Warner for the game's first touchdown. "This is the first time we've been in this position in 10 years. We've been in the cellar in this conference, in this division for a long time and we're gonna have to fight our way out of it, going to have to change perceptions around here."
Said Coach Ken Whisenhunt: "A lot of people coming into this game said that we were the worst playoff team to ever get in and no one ever gave us a chance and I think we rallied around that."
Perceptions were being changed all over the place.
Consider one disgruntled running back. There was an element of surprise from a recent source of controversy: Edgerrin James, who had fallen into disfavor in Arizona this season. So forgotten, that if you want to continue the school metaphor, James might as well have been thrown under the bus until the last couple of weeks.
James fired back earlier this week and said he did not plan to return to the Cardinals.
James had 16 carries for 73 yards and one reception for nine years, getting the better of his much-younger Falcons counterpart, Michael Turner, the league's No. 2 rusher. Turner had 42 yards in 18 carries.
Falcons Coach Mike Smith pointed to Rolle's touchdown return after a botched handoff as one of the biggest plays of the game.
"I think the ball got punched out. . . . That big play in the third quarter, the second play of the second half kind of got us out of whack for a while," he said. "We were able to come back and get a scoring drive late in the ballgame. Then, of course, we weren't able to get a stop. I think that's really the story of the game."
Then, of course, James was a major subplot.
"The thing about it, if you look back on everything, you can say why didn't we do this, why didn't we do that?" James said. "Did it hurt us? It didn't hurt us. We got serious. In this league, you've got to do what it takes when it matters."
James, on the weight of his stellar resume, said he had nothing to prove.
"If I'm playing and get my number called, and the line does their job, I'm gonna come up big," James said. "I don't have anything to worry about."
Said Fitzgerald: "He's been in so many big, big games throughout his career. It's been an up-and-down season for Edge. He could have tanked it a long time ago. But that's just a testament to the kind of player he is and the person he is."
Arizona will go on the road next, against the New York Giants or the Carolina Panthers.
"I like being the underdog," Whisenhunt said.
They've sort of gotten used to that.
James even joked about the season of tumult and had the media chuckling with his question in response to a question.
"This year we've had so much change," he said. "I don't know what Cardinal football is. What is Cardinal football?"