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Sunday, January 11, 2009
No denying Cardinals' makeover

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

 
  Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
  Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald added to his season-long highlight reel, catching eight passes for 166 yards in a 33-13 win over the Panthers.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The book on the Arizona Cardinals needs an overhaul, and fast.

Everything you thought you knew about this no-longer-forlorn franchise merits revisiting following the Cardinals' 33-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC divisional round at Bank of America Stadium.

The Arizona team that struggled against quality opponents outside the NFC West has suddenly defeated two of them in eight days.

The Arizona team that couldn't win on the East Coast handed the Panthers their first home defeat of the season.

  Cardinals-Panthers highlights
  NFL.com Video
  Watch highlights from Arizona's 33-13 win over the Panthers.

The Arizona team that finished the regular season ranked last among NFL teams in rushing yards suddenly can run the ball in January, when it matters most.

The Arizona team that once seemed less popular in its home market than the Dallas Cowboys has now won three playoff games since Jerry Jones' franchise last tasted postseason success.

"Yes, sir!" defensive end Antonio Smith shouted as he charged toward the visitors' locker room.

That was about as boisterous as the Cardinals would get after the most significant victory since the 1947 Chicago Cardinals defeated Philadelphia for the NFL title.

Oh, they were thrilled to prove skeptics wrong and advance to the NFC title game against the winner of the Eagles-Giants game. But they stopped short of jubilant.

"We know we have to continue to stay humble," Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson said. "We are taking everything in stride."

For that they can thank coach Ken Whisenhunt and the staff he brought to the desert. The success Whisenhunt enjoyed in Pittsburgh -- repeated playoff berths and a Super Bowl title -- gave him a level of credibility his predecessors lacked.

The Cardinals have responded. They are surprising their critics, but not themselves. The Cardinals are dangerous and they know it.

"We've gone through a lot and we're playing pretty good football right now, and that's what is important," Whisenhunt said.

Eight things the Cardinals' victory demonstrated:

1. Quarterback play trumps the ground game

Kurt Warner vs. Jake Delhomme On third down
  Warner Delhomme
Comp-Att 9-13 2-7
Pass Yards 106 18
TD-INT 1-0 0-1
First downs 7 2
Passer rating 119.4 0.0
-- ESPN Stats & Information
Few teams in the NFL can run the ball consistently well against eight-man fronts. Most eventually need their quarterbacks to make plays down the field.

The Panthers' Jake Delhomme hadn't been asked to win many games with his arm. He had thrown 15 touchdown passes with 12 interceptions during the regular season. The running game carried Carolina this far, but the Panthers weren't built to play from behind.

The Cardinals had no such worries after falling behind 7-0 early in the game. They've thrown the ball successfully all season. An improved running game has afforded Kurt Warner the luxury of a play-action passing game. The combination makes the Cardinals much more difficult to defend.

2. The Cardinals' skeptics are running low on ammo

Discounting the Cardinals as a product of a historically inept division lost traction when Arizona beat the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round.

The Falcons were playing on the road with a rookie quarterback, you say.

OK, but what about the Panthers? Delhomme, 34, has 80 regular-season starts and Super Bowl credentials. The Cardinals intercepted him five times.

Five Arizona players have combined for seven interceptions in two playoff games.

The Cardinals' defense is onto something.

3. Arizona's run defense prevents the big play

Carolina led the NFL this season with 24 running plays of at least 20 yards and six of at least 40 yards.

The Cardinals' defense allowed eight rushes of 20-plus yards, seventh-fewest in the league, and one run of 40-plus yards, tied for fourth-fewest.

Sure tackling and disciplined play were the key variables for Arizona for a second
consecutive week.

The Cardinals allowed a 31-yard run to the Panthers early, and Whisenhunt said the lapse worried him some. But the Cardinals' run defense tightened.

The Cardinals' pass rush and coverage were good enough to let Arizona load up against DeAngelo Williams on likely running downs. And when Arizona pulled ahead, the Panthers' running game became even less of a factor.

Williams finished with 12 carries for 63 yards. A week earlier, the Falcons' Michael Turner carried 18 times for 42 yards.

4. This rookie is headed for the Pro Bowl next season

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie leapt high to break up a deep pass for superstar Panthers receiver Steve Smith. The rookie first-round choice also picked off a Delhomme pass near the goal line.

Rodgers-Cromartie has six interceptions in his last nine games, counting playoffs.

The Cardinals moved him into the starting lineup in Week 9, one game after their 27-23 loss to the Panthers. His development since that game has given the Cardinals another dimension on defense. His ability to cover gives the Cardinals more flexibility in committing extra defenders against the run, a key to the Cardinals' playoff success.

5. For some, momentum beats a week of rest

Beating the Atlanta Falcons in the wild-card round sent the Cardinals to Carolina with momentum on their side. A more experienced playoff team might have benefited from a down week, but the Cardinals' experience in the wild-card round prepared them well for Saturday.

"You get that extra game, you get that extra feel of how it is to win or how it is to play in the playoffs, the atmosphere," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "We were used to that when we came here and after we settled down, we were a well-oiled machine. Their timing was off, Delhomme's timing was off, even the running backs, finding the holes."

6. The Cardinals can win without Boldin

Steve Smith vs. Larry Fitzgerald
  Smith Fitzgerald
Thrown to 7 13
Complete 2 8
Yards 43 166
TD 1 1
Defended 2 1
INT * 3 1
* Pass intercepted while targeted at WR
-- ESPN Stats & Information
A hamstring injury prevented Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin from playing, but the Cardinals' offense has evolved enough to win without him.

Having another Pro Bowl wideout in Larry Fitzgerald certainly helps. Fitzgerald again revealed himself as the best jump-ball catcher in the league. He caught eight passes for 166 yards. At one point in the first half, Fitzgerald had 151 yards to 70 for the Panthers.

The Cardinals' renewed attention to the running game is making Fitzgerald even more dangerous. They finished with 43 carries and only 32 pass attempts.

"How exciting it is to come out there and run the ball effectively and just mix in the passing game," right guard Deuce Lutui said. "It keeps them on their toes."

7. Turnovers aren't a fluke

Delhomme makes for an easy target after tossing five interceptions. The Cardinals forced some of those turnovers. They've been doing it all season.

Arizona's recent run on interceptions makes them especially dangerous. They led the NFL with 17 fumble recoveries during the regular season.

8. The Cardinals' coaches are hotter commodities

Russ Grimm, the Cardinals' assistant head coach and offensive line coach, was already a candidate for the St. Louis Rams' head coaching job heading into the divisional round.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was a potential candidate in Oakland.

Both men become more attractive candidates as the Cardinals continue to advance. That's a problem the Cardinals can live with and a sign of the organization's progress under Whisenhunt.

Haley called a very good game against the Panthers. The Cardinals passed on 11 of their first 15 plays, then ran the ball six plays in a row and 15 of their next 22.

Haley mixed personnel effectively and avoided some of the cute plays that didn't work so well in the wild-card round. Those included an ill-fated reverse and an incomplete pass for Rodgers-Cromartie.

The Cardinals stuck with their strengths Saturday and it paid off.