TEMPE, Ariz. -- They morphed from first to worst. One week, the Cardinals were 7-3 and one victory short of a title. The next, they were one step short of atrocious. Those weeks turned into a 1-4 month that was razing Arizona.
And the month's scoreboard read: Them 177, Us 104.
No wonder Cris Collinsworth on Showtime's "Inside the NFL" called them the worst playoff team in history.
"I know some people wanted to say, 'Well, the Cardinals aren't very good,' " said Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, who, as always, was being charitable. "We realized what it was like to play against playoff football teams down the stretch. I think we were shocked a little bit. ... We have never been here before.
"I think it kick-started us. It made us step back and say, 'This is going to be a short postseason if we come out and play [that] way.' "
So now some skeptics are attempting to label Arizona (12-7) the worst Super Bowl participant in history, the big game's first 9-7 regular-season finisher. Yet it staked its rightful claim to a Sunday date in Tampa's Raymond James Stadium opposite the Steelers (14-4) thanks to three playoff triumphs and four victories in succession.
All that, though, came after the Cardinals miserable month.
They lost to the New York Giants, 37-29, allowing 24 points in 25 minutes. They lost to the Eagles at Philadelphia, 48-20, while permitting 437 yards. They earned their only other modern division title besides 1974-75 with a home win against the St. Louis Rams, 34-10. Then they lost to Minnesota, 35-10, and New England, 47-7, while yielding 910 combined yards.
Second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt put them in full pads and made them bang around in a wet, chilly -- by Valley of the Sun standards -- Christmas Day practice. It knocked sense into their helmets. After that, the Cardinals seemed to regain the offensive potency, team unity, physical mentality that won them the NFC West.
"I think it all really goes back to the New England game [Dec. 21] -- I don't want to say it was the watermark game, but, from then on there's been a sense of urgency with our football team," Whisenhunt said. "And, for whatever reason, we've built off that.
"It's hard when everybody is telling you how bad you are after you've done something that hasn't been done around here, as far as winning the division. And, when people say you're the worst team in the history of the playoffs, that's tough."
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett pinned their dramatic turnaround to an acceptance of both accountability and opportunity: "Let's not be satisfied with just being here."
They beat Seattle in the regular-season finale at University of Phoenix Stadium, 34-21, behind 457 yards of offense. They beat Atlanta, 30-24, in the franchise's first home playoff game in 61 years and two cities, since the 1947 NFL championship game in Chicago. They beat the tar out of Carolina, 33-13, on the road. They beat Philadelphia -- the same Eagles who stuffed Arizona Thanksgiving night -- 32-25 on a fourth-quarter drive for the winning touchdown, Whisenhunt and players slapping hands in a victory lap around the field.
They've morphed again -- from 1-4 to 4-0 and Super Bowl-bound for a franchise-first time.
"Usually, when you have a team that's been successful, you have a core group of veterans that understand how you have to work in order to maintain that success," said Whisenhunt, who has 14 starters with five seasons of experience or less and 16 without previous playoff experience. "When you have a team like the Cardinals who haven't had a great deal of success, you don't have that core group.
"When you work so hard to attain something, to win the division, when you accomplish that, you get a feeling of 'Phew, OK, we made it, we got that.' What you have to do [is] to keep your focus and continue with the same work ethic ... and [failing to do that] is part of the reason we struggled at the end of the year. Adversity makes you stronger, and obviously that worked for us. Because at the end of the year, we're playing a lot better football.
"I really believe we can use this as a springboard to continue to have success for years to come."
Chuck Finder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .