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Saturday, January 3, 2009
Cardinals carve out winning identity

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
 Chris Morrison/US Presswire
 Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald was one of several Cardinals' stars to step up their game Saturday in a 30-24 wild-card win over Atlanta.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Nothing the Arizona Cardinals said Saturday resonated more persuasively than their actions during a 30-24 wild-card playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Framed with some justification as one-dimensional, undisciplined playoff pretenders from the NFL's worst division, the Cardinals revealed themselves Saturday as much more.

"Obviously, people have said, 'Same old Cardinals, they should give up their playoff spot the way they've played the last couple weeks,' " veteran defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "That's fine. We understand that when we put our hands in between those stripes, we are a tough team to beat at home."

We now know what to make -- nothing -- of the Cardinals' slide from 7-3 to 9-7 over the final six games of the regular season. If anything, the slide invited ridicule that helped the Cardinals refocus.

"Everyone was kind of kicking us and we sucked it up and decided to get back to work," Pro Bowl special-teamer Sean Morey said. "Guys have committed themselves to this team in the postseason and it's important to this team. There is a lot of team chemistry here. Guys play for one another. When you do that, you play with purpose."

The Cardinals were the more balanced team Saturday. They appeared more disciplined in following their defensive assignments. They were surer tacklers. They were more opportunistic. They were more resilient. And they finished more impressively than they had done all season, holding the ball for the final 4:15.

That is how teams win in the playoffs, even if the Cardinals didn't always win that way during the regular season.

"A lot of the things that we've worked on that we have struggled with this year, we've continued to stay true and it really paid off for us today," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

A closer look at 10 things we learned about the Cardinals:

1. Their fans can take a bow.

Yes, the Cardinals needed two 24-hour extensions to avoid a local television blackout, but the atmosphere inside University of Phoenix Stadium more than atoned.

Fans waved towels. They made enough noise to disrupt the Falcons and cause false-start penalties. They were quiet when the Cardinals' offense was at work.

The experience was what the Cardinals dreamed their new stadium would deliver.

"The atmosphere at the start of the game was as good as any I've ever been in," Whisenhunt said.

2. Arizona can run the ball.

The NFL's last-ranked rushing team during the regular season, Arizona handed off six times during an eight-play span during their second and third possessions.

The Cardinals came back to the run nine times during a pivotal 14-play, 76-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter.

"That was something we've had trouble doing all season, running the ball consistently," receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "When they knew we were going to run it, we were able to push it down their throat and that felt so good."

Edgerrin James isn't going to break a 75-yard run, but his 16 carries for 73 yards were the difference for the Cardinals.

"That's the type of game I'm used to," James said.

3. The Cardinals still own third quarters.

Arizona led the NFL in third-quarter scoring with 143 points during the regular season.

It wasn't a fluke.

The Cardinals outscored the Falcons 14-0 in the third quarter Saturday. They controlled the ball for more than 10 minutes in the third quarter and 11 minutes in the fourth.

4. Arizona can play disciplined defense.

Michael Turner, Jerious Norwood and the Falcons' big-play ground game had the potential to exploit the Cardinals' defense. By their own admission, Arizona defenders have sometimes strayed from their assignments in pursuit of big plays, only to allow opponents to break free.

The Cardinals' performance against the Falcons showed what happens when Arizona resists such temptations.

"This win says that we've been through a lot, we got back to what the basics were," defensive lineman Antonio Smith said. "We got back to who we were when we started, hard workers and hard players and disciplined players.

"Once we got back to that, this team can beat any team in the NFL as long as we believe in ourselves and keep our technique."

5. The Cardinals need Boldin on third down.

Anquan Boldin was easily the Cardinals' most productive player on third down during the regular season, catching 25 passes for 201 yards and four touchdowns in 12 games.

After dropping the ball on a third-and-5 play Saturday, Boldin turned a routine third-and-9 reception into a 71-yard catch-and-run. The second-quarter touchdown staked Arizona to a 14-3 lead.

A hamstring injury prevented Boldin from returning. The Cardinals will miss his third-down production if Boldin can't play in the divisional round.

6. Whisenhunt plays to win.

Conservative play calling has prevented more than a few teams from closing out opponents.

Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley remain determined to prevent Arizona from becoming one of those teams.

The Cardinals completed pass plays for 15, 25 and 23 yards while protecting their 30-24 lead in the final four minutes.

The aggressive tack marked a refreshing departure from typically conservative NFL play-calling, but the approach was consistent with how Whisenhunt and Haley have called games all season.

7. Antrel Rolle is a playmaker.

The Cardinals' fourth-year safety scored his second touchdown of the season and the fifth of his career, and his timing couldn't have been better.

Some players have a knack for being in the right place. Rolle is one of those players.

His 27-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the third quarter came when a long Falcons drive might have finished off the Cardinals.

Arizona's defense had been on the field for more than 21 of 30 minutes in the first half. Rolle's return less than a minute into the second half gave the Car
dinals a lead they would not lose.

8. The Cardinals' best players are stepping up.

Teams advance in the playoffs when their best players excel. The Cardinals' best players outperformed their Atlanta counterparts, and it wasn't close.

Kurt Warner threw long touchdown passes to fellow Pro Bowl starters Fitzgerald and Boldin.

James, a forgotten man until recently, flashed his former Pro Bowl form by breaking tackles and setting up the Cardinals in more favorable third-down situations.

Darnell Dockett, a Pro Bowl participant as an alternate last season, blew up plays, including the one setting up Rolle's touchdown return.

9. James' future isn't so clear.

James said he entered this season with visions of climbing several rungs on the NFL's all-time rushing list and building on what he established in Arizona.

Those dreams died when the Cardinals benched James during the season. As recently as last week, James predicted the Cardinals would release him after the season.

They still might, but for now, James is giving the Cardinals their best chance at winning playoff games. Berry and other Cardinals players said James' playoff experience and effective running provided a calming influence.

As for James?

"For me, I just want to finish off strong and do whatever I can to make the trip worthwhile out here," he said. "I came out here, we had only one losing season, I've had 1,000-yard seasons, things that haven't happened around here.

"It's not all bad. When I look back on it, you know what? I didn't do that bad a job by coming out here. I made some improvements to what was going on statistically and I'm a part of the winning, so that is one thing I'll look back on and I won't be mad about it.

"Plus, if I was 34 or 35 and couldn't move around, then I would probably be frustrated. But hey, I've still got some more years."

10. Arizona would have a chance at Carolina.

Arizona will visit the New York Giants or Carolina Panthers in the divisional round depending on what happens Sunday.

Don't count out the Cardinals, particularly if they draw Carolina. Arizona held a 17-3 road lead over the Panthers before suffering a 27-23 defeat during the regular season.

Warner completed 70 percent of his passes for 381 yards in that game. The Cardinals' pass protection held up well. Their running game was stuck in neutral at the time, but that is changing.

With James gaining momentum on the ground and the Cardinals' confidence surging, Arizona would have a chance.