25 - 32 Final
  for this game

Cardinals jolt Eagles to reach Super Bowl

Jan 19, 2009 - 4:01 AM
GLENDALE, Arizona (Ticker) -- With a chance to "prove it," the Arizona Cardinals answered their many skeptics - but not without a major scare.

The Cardinals completed one of the more improbable runs in NFL history, riding four touchdown passes from Kurt Warner to outlast the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-25, in Sunday's NFC championship game.

Arizona (12-7) claimed its first league title since beating these same Eagles in 1947, ending the second-longest drought in North American sports history in advancing to its first Super Bowl against the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I want to say Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence," said Warner, who became the third quarterback in league history to lead two different teams to conference titles. "I like the way that sounds."

Throughout the week, Arizona's players donned T-shirts with the words "Prove It" as an answer to those who questioned its playoff credentials.

Prove it the Cardinals did, becoming the second nine-win team to reach the Super Bowl since the advent of the 16-game regular season in 1978.

Arizona also was berated for winning the softest division (NFC West) in the league and losing four of its last six games, including a Thanksgiving night massacre in Philadelphia, but they put such talk to rest with Sunday's victory.

"I can't even put it into words, it has been a roller-coaster ride for eight years and to finally get to this point it means a lot," Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson said. "Tonight the Arizona Cardinals changed their stripes.

"We have had that us-against-them mentality for the whole playoffs. We have been using that as motivation."

Warner's fourth scoring pass of the day, an 8-yard toss to rookie running back Tim Hightower, provided the winning touchdown for Arizona, which squandered an 18-point halftime lead before rallying to hold off a near-miraculous comeback by the Eagles (11-7-1).

After coughing up the lead, the Cardinals responded by moving 72 yards in 14 plays for the go-ahead score with 2:53 to play.

"On that final drive we got it with seven-something on the clock and took it five minutes down the field and scored a touchdown," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "(That) really is an indication of our growth as a team. The biggest thing was not panicking and I did not see anyone panic."

The drive included a gutsy call by Whisenhunt, who went for it on 4th-and-inches at midfield with just over 7 1/2 minutes to play.

"It was so close I felt we were going to get it," Whisenhunt said. "I understand the situation and where it was, but the way our offensive line has played the last few weeks, I thought we would get it."

Larry Fitzgerald had his third consecutive monster game in the postseason, hauling in nine receptions for 152 yards and three first-half touchdowns as the Cardinals avenged a 48-20 beating at Philadelphia on Thanksgiving night.

In the three-game playoff run to the Super Bowl, Fitzgerald had 23 catches for a postseason-record 419 yards and five touchdowns. He also tied a record with the three scoring receptions in one game.

"We had some favorable looks and Kurt threw it in there to me and gave me a chance to make some plays," Fitzgerald said. "It is my job and I want to make sure I am accountable - and if I am not, I get that death stare from Kurt."

"I don't know how many huge plays he has made for us in the playoffs," Whisenhunt said of Fitzgerald.

Warner finished 21-of-28 for 279 yards and zero interceptions to earn a trip to his third Super Bowl - and first since the 2001 season with the St. Louis Rams.

"There were times when they got the best of us and we got the best of them at times," Warner said. "You have to hope you win those share of those battles and today we did and that was a huge difference offensively."

Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb led a valiant comeback by completing 28-of-47 passes for 355 yards and three second-half touchdown passes, including a 62-yarder to rookie DeSean Jackson that gave Philadelphia its only lead at 25-24 with 10:45 to play in the game.

But the upstart Cardinals, the only No. 4 seed in NFL history to host a championship game, would not be denied, stringing together a 14-play, 72-yard drive for the deciding touchdown.

"The second half really told the tale," McNabb said. "We got things going. We felt like any play that we called was going to be a great play for us, but they were able to prevail."

It was the fifth appearance in the championship game in 10 seasons for the Eagles, tying the New England Patriots for the most of any team in that span.

But that Eagles fell to just 1-4 in those contests, which all have come under coach Andy Reid.

"It is a very sudden thing when you lose in the playoffs," Reid said. "The reality is there is one happy team at the end of the year. You are in the playoffs and you expect to move on, so right now it hurts.

"In the first half, they played better football than us. We put ourselves in a bind. We had to come back from quite a bit and we did, but give the Cardinals credit for rallying and punching in the last touchdown."

The late touchdown hardly seemed like it would be necessary following the way Arizona shredded the Eagles' defense in the first half, moving the ball at will against a unit that had not allowed more than 14 points in the previous six games.

Warner was perfect on his first four pass attempts, capping a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 9-yard strike to Fitzgerald as Arizona took a 7-0 lead with 9:20 left in the opening period. Edgerrin James had four rushes for 33 yards on the march.

David Akers answered with a 45-yard field goal for Philadelphia, which appeared to catch a break when Aaron Francisco's interception of McNabb was stripped away by Jackson and recovered by the Eagles.

Philadelphia could not capitalize, though, as Akers was wide right on a 47-yard attempt with 13 1/2 minutes left in the half, ending his NFL-record streak at 19 consecutive field goals in the postseason.

On the very next play from scrimmage, Warner, off a flea-flicker, hit a leaping Fitzgerald on a 62-yard scoring pass to push the lead to 14-3.

"I see that every day," Whisenhunt said. "I think the biggest steps we made is our quarterbacks trust Larry. In some situations what we have to do is throw the ball up to him because he is pretty darn consistent making those plays."

After the Eagles had to settle for another field goal by Akers, this time from 33 yards, Warner moved the Cardinals 73 yards in nine plays. He floated a 1-yard pass to Fitzgerald in the left corner of the end zone, ballooning the margin to 21-6 with 3:06 left in the half.

Neil Rackers ended the first-half carnage for the Eagles, booting a 49-yard field goal as time ran out for a 24-6 lead at intermission.

But the Eagles showed their mettle, scoring three touchdowns in a 9 1/2-minute span bridging the third and fourth quarters to inch in front.

McNabb threw scoring passes of 6 and 31 yards to tight end Brent Celek, who had 10 receptions for 83 yards, in the third quarter before the go-ahead bomb to Jackson early in the fourth.

"We got into a comfort zone," McNabb said. "We started running different plays and got opportunities. We felt like every opportunity we would step on the field we were going to score."

Fitzgerald said no one in the Arizona locker room was feeling secure at halftime despite the comfortable cushion.

"They have been in this position five times out of the last (10) years and we went into halftime with a nice lead but we knew we were going to get their best shot and we were able to weather the storm," he said.