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NFL PLAYOFFS

Arizona will play in its first Super Bowl

Fitzgerald and Warner, among many, lead the Cardinals to their first NFC title with a 32-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

January 19, 2009|Sam Farmer

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — The Arizona Cardinals didn't open their retractable roof Sunday.

They shattered their glass ceiling.

The long-held belief that "Cardinals" and "Super Bowl" will never occupy the same sentence is over, laid to rest by Arizona's 32-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game.

This time, the punch line punched back.

"We believe in ourselves, and we believe in each other, so really it doesn't matter what other people believe," Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "They've all got to come see us in Tampa. Period."

For the Cardinals, Sunday didn't end with a period but an exclamation point. The franchise that before this season had not played host to a playoff game since 1947 proved it was no fluke it got this far. The Cardinals beat Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia in consecutive weeks, setting the stage for a Super Bowl XLIII showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald was the star of the game with three touchdowns, but it was Arizona's 32nd-ranked ground game that clinched the victory. Rookie Tim Hightower scored on an eight-yard reception with 2 minutes 53 seconds remaining. That, coupled with a two-point conversion, provided the margin of victory.

That touchdown -- Arizona's only points of the second half -- blunted a comeback by the Eagles, who scored three touchdowns over a 10-minute span to claw their way back into a game that had gotten away from them.

That set up the clinching drive, which came against the backdrop of a stadium painted red with Cardinals jerseys and set in motion by tens of thousands of swirling white towels.

"Whenever you get to play at home in a game of this magnitude, the fans play an important role in it," Arizona safety Adrian Wilson said. "I think the home-field advantage was really there."

The last time these teams had met, on Thanksgiving night, the Eagles cruised to victory in a 48-20 stomping. If that wasn't fresh in the minds of the Cardinals last week, Coach Ken Whisenhunt made sure to remind them of it in his Saturday night talk with the players.

"He said, 'Remember that feeling on Thanksgiving, when they embarrassed us on national TV? Remember that,' " cornerback Ralph Brown said. "And we did going into this game. We used it as fuel."

The Cardinals had plenty of fuel, and some excellent coaching to go along with it. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley had a game plan that created all sorts of mismatches for Fitzgerald, who caught nine passes for 152 yards with touchdowns of nine, 62 and one yard.

Most memorable of those was the longest, a trick play -- a pitch to running back J.J. Arrington, who threw back to quarterback Kurt Warner, who hit Fitzgerald streaking down the middle, one on one with backup safety Will Demps. No contest: Demps fell down, Fitzgerald scored.

The play is called "Philly Special," and Haley brought it from the Dallas Cowboys, where he was passing-game coordinator. Saturday night, he instructed third-string quarterback Brian St. Pierre to watch for the proper time to run it, when Philadelphia's defense was just so.

"I was going back and forth whether I wanted to call it or not, and then Brian came up to me and said, 'Philly Special,' " Haley said. "And that was all I needed. I had the personnel in there and everything, but I was going back and forth between that play and a conservative play. When he nudged me, I went ahead with it."

At that point, everything seemed to be going right for the Cardinals. But things started to slip away from them in the third quarter, when they had eight yards of offense and zero first downs in two possessions.

Not only did the Eagles seize momentum, they took the lead, going on top, 25-24, on a 62-yard touchdown pass from Donovan McNabb to DeSean Jackson with 10:45 to play.

The Cardinals responded with a 14-play touchdown drive to reclaim the lead, and, ultimately, the game. Warner finished with brilliant numbers: 21 for 28 for 279 yards and four touchdowns.

Said McNabb, who threw for three touchdowns with an interception: "To end this way, it's tough, when you're that close to making it to the Super Bowl. This team has really pulled together, and it was that type of nucleus you definitely want."

But this day belonged to the Cardinals.

As giant blowers pumped plumes of silver and red confetti into the air, the Arizona players brought their families onto the field, embraced, toted jersey-wearing babies, took snapshots and videos, absorbed the moment.

In the stands, a fan held a sign that hearkened back on a sadder day, a twist on a well-worn phrase uttered by then-coach Dennis Green after a bitter loss.

It read: "The Cardinals are who nobody thought we were."

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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