Cardinals clinch NFC title with 32-25 win over Eagles

Thanks to Larry Fitzgerald, Kurt Warner, Ken Whisenhunt, franchise headed to an NFL championship game for the first time since 1948


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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For 24 years, they mostly floundered under the Arch in St. Louis without so much as a playoff victory in a meager three postseason appearances.

For the past generation, since the miserly Bidwell family moved further west, they wandered the Valley of the Sun without so much as a home playoff game, without so much as a locker room to call their own in their previous home of Sun Devil Stadium.

This bewitched and bewildering football franchise, last an NFL champion in 1947 as the Cardinals of Chicago, at long last wandered in from the desert and into football's Promised Land yesterday. The once-accursed Cardinals, under former Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt and 14 other coaches and players with Pittsburgh ties, reached their inaugural Super Bowl berth with a 32-25, come-from-behind triumph against the Philadelphia Eagles before a giddy, white-towel-waving 70,650 inside University of Phoenix Stadium. Several former Cardinals populaces must be stunned. The franchise last played for the league championship in 1948, losing to Philadelphia.

"It's Ripley's Believe It or Not," said Arizona guard Deuce Lutui, most of whose 25 years growing up around Phoenix in suburban Mesa, Ariz., was spent watching this lost club.

"Everybody talked about it being a dysfunctional organization, how they can't get out of their own way," added defensive tackle Bertrand Berry, signed from Denver five years ago. "I saw an opportunity to ... be part of a resurrection. It just feels unbelievable."

There will be considerable media breath and space wasted on allegories about Phoenix rising in the fortnight leading to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. There, on Feb. 1, Whisenhunt and the fellas -- after rallying from a 1-4, late-season tailspin to win four consecutive games -- will meet the Steelers, 23-14 victors against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game last night.

Asked if he wanted to face his former employers, Whisenhunt responded, "Absolutely. I mean, I'm glad we are playing in it, but the reason I'm here is because of my time with Pittsburgh, and I am very grateful for that."

But his club's journey to this point remains unalterably amazing.

A 9-7 team branded the worst playoff participant in NFL history, after clinching the NFC West early and scraping into the postseason, is using both a fancy passing game and plenty of Pittsburgh guys to come within one victory of a Lombardi Trophy that seemed unreachable for so long.

Larry Fitzgerald set three NFL records yesterday in a performance that fellow Cardinals claimed they've been watching routinely the past five years. Fitzgerald's three touchdowns tied an NFL championship-game record held by five others. His 152 yards on nine catches made him the fourth player to top 100 in three consecutive playoff games, equaling Hall of Famer Tom Fears and eventual inductees Jerry Rice and Randy Moss. And his 419 playoff receiving yards surpassed the legendary Rice's 409 total from 1988 -- with one game still to go.

His three first-half touchdowns from Kurt Warner, including a 62-yarder on a flea-flicker that followed a 9-yarder on which he spun from three would-be tacklers, joined a key 14-yard catch on a drive for a last-second field goal and stoked host Arizona (12-7) with a 24-3 intermission lead.

"He has made I don't know how many huge plays for us in the playoffs," Whisenhunt said. Yet the Eagles (11-7-1) didn't go away.

Donovan McNabb, who passed for 375 yards and rushed for another 31, threw two third-quarter touchdown passes to tight end Brent Celek. Then he responded with a third unanswered touchdown on a 62-yard pass to DeSean Jackson, who bobbled it once, twice after cornerback Roderick Hood tipped it and then backed into the end zone for a 25-24 lead.

From there, the Cardinals embarked on a 14-play, 72-yard drive lasting 7 minutes, 52 seconds and using two Fitzgerald receptions for 33 yards and scoring on an 8-yard screen to rookie Tim Hightower. A Warner pass to Ben Patrick added the two-point conversion.

"It feels crazy," said starting guard Reggie Wells of Clarion University and South Park High School, one of seven Cardinals players with Pitt, Pittsburgh or Steelers bonds.

"It's beautiful when you go down a road like that and make it work."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com.


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