NFC West: Anuan Boldin
|Jamie Squire/Getty Images|
|Arizona's Kurt Warner and receiver Larry Fitzgerald hooked up a number of times in Sunday's 32-25 win over Philadelphia.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- This is how it works when your last NFL Championship Game was in 1947. You take a 24-6 halftime lead in this year's NFC Championship Game. Then you collapse in the second half, take your dubious spot in the NFL record book and start getting ready for next year.
That fate seemed likely Sunday for the Cardinals. Arizona was poised to join a short list of teams that have given up an 18-point lead in the postseason. Philadelphia had stormed back to take a 25-24 lead early in the fourth quarter, and a sellout crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium had turned silent.
But with 10 minutes, 39 seconds left in the game, the Cardinals stopped being ... well, they stopped being the Cardinals. They put aside 61 years of misery and produced a drive that propelled them to the doorstep of immortality.
"What we did," said receiver Steve Breaston, "is what you do to win championships."
Yes, the Cardinals fashioned a 14-play, 72-yard drive that consumed nearly eight minutes and ended with Tim Hightower's 8-yard touchdown reception. The march included a risky fourth-down conversion and a smart misdirection call on the touchdown.
How did the Cardinals pull themselves together and launch themselves into Super Bowl XLIII with a 32-25 win? Let's take a second look.
The first huddle of the drive was surprisingly calm, according to Hightower and quarterback Kurt Warner. Remember, the offense had managed just 29 yards and one first down on its three second-half possessions. Players might have been shell-shocked, but they were composed.
"I didn't seen any panic," Warner said. "I think that was the thing. There wasn't a whole lot that was said. We knew what we had to accomplish. Nobody was panicking. Nobody was crazy or hyperventilating or anything like that. We just told ourselves ... that we've done some good things today and now we just need to do it one more time. Guys were calm and collected and believed we could drive the ball down the field and do our business."
What could inspire such confidence? According to Hightower, the Cardinals had played much worse during a 2-4 stretch in the final six games of the regular season. They had rallied to win a pair of playoff games after that slump, giving them reason to believe they could revive themselves Sunday.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs this year," Hightower said. "We've been at the highest point you can be, and we've been in the lowest point you can be a couple of times. So we just needed to keep a level head. We've shown to ourselves that we can figure out a way to come out on the other side."
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley had a plan, too. The Cardinals had run the ball well in building up their first-half lead, and Haley was determined to start grinding against an Eagles defense that he felt was wearing down. Of the 14 plays he called on the drive, nine were runs.
"We just needed to get back to what we were doing in the first half," Haley said.
The biggest run came on fourth-and-1 from the Eagles' 49-yard line. Nearly eight minutes remained in the game, and failing to convert would have turned the ball back to the Eagles in a position where they could easily add to their lead. But Haley and coach Ken Whisenhunt were convinced they could gain a yard on a zone blocking play that Hightower has excelled at all season.
"I just felt like we were going to get it," Whisenhunt said. "It wasn't a hard call."
The play required Hightower to follow fullback Terrelle Smith to the right side and react to what he saw. But Smith didn't immediately target a defender, so Hightower took the risky path of turning parallel to the line of scrimmage and heading outside. Running backs don't always turn the corner in those situations, but Hightower stutter-stepped as he waited for the blocking to materialize. Smith eventually got a piece of Eagles cornerback Quintin Mikell. Hightower squeezed around the block, squared himself and gained six crucial yards.
"My job on that play is to get a first down," Hightower said. "That's what I've got to do. I've got to get a first down. Plays rarely go where they're supposed to. I got to read the fullback's block. If it takes me inside, it takes me inside. If it takes me outside, it takes me outside. It was definitely a risk to move outside, but I've got enough confidence in my fullback."
The play provided Arizona crucial momentum. Warner followed with an 18-yard pass to receiver Larry Fitzgerald, putting the Cardinals in field goal range. Then Haley went to work on whittling down the clock, calling running plays on four of the next five plays.
|Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald fool Philly for a fancy 62-yard touchdown.|
That left the Cardinals facing a third-and-goal from the Eagles' 8-yard line. Philadelphia called a timeout to preserve some time, and during the stoppage Haley and Warner settled on a play that would take advantage of a perceived tendency and likely catch the Eagles off-guard.
According to Warner, the Cardinals often run a short screen to receiver Anquan Boldin in those situations. Arizona felt confident the Eagles would be expecting it and would send a heavy blitz to clog the passing lanes. The play called for Warner to fake to Boldin, who was lined up on the far right side of the formation, and then find Hightower for a backside screen.
The Eagles did not blitz, but that decision actually worked to the Cardinals' favor. Linebacker Stewart Bradley backed off the line of scrimmage at the last second, freeing several offensive linemen to get downfield ahead of Hightower. One of them was tackle Mike Gandy, who sealed off Bradley as Hightower rumbled into the end zone.
"I think it fooled them a little bit," Warner said. "They probably expected something to the outside."
Instead, the Cardinals took a 32-25 lead with the ensuing two-point conversion. The had moved 72 yards -- along with a few figurative mountains -- in a matter of minutes.
"I think it speaks a lot to our team and how we've grown up as far as being able to respond," Whisenhunt said. "That was really a drive. ... [It] really is an indication of our growth as a team, and that's what it is really about."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Nicholas from New York writes: hey mike, long time reader, first time writer. do you think that tim ruskell needs to worry about his job up in seattle?
I really don't like how the nfl has so much turnover. I believe continuity is what makes great franchises but i cannot ignore some of his mistakes over the years... Hutchinson's loss i will never forgive. the past years would have been radically different if we held on to him. signing alexander to a huge deal ... drafting tiny corners in a league dominated by big recievers ... trading a #1 pick for a small reciever with pedestrian speed who cannot stay on the field. Sure, julian petersen and lofa tatupu and patrick kerney were good, but all of them are small which contributes to them getting worn down in gritty games.
signing like 8 backs in the offseason and paying them all wayyyy tooo much ... please stop the bleeding ... i hope holmgren can stay around and be the gm after he retires this year. he is the best thing to ever happen to this franchise!
Mike Sando: I don't think Tim Ruskell needs to worry about his job right now. I will attempt to provide some balance to your thoughts, which are naturally born of frustration.
All of your points make sense if the team is 1-4. Then, we must ask why the team is 1-4. If we think the injuries at receiver and quarterback are the difference between 1-4 and, say, 3-2, then we need to revisit the premise. I personally think an offense without such a drastic injury situation would have been enough for Seattle to win the home games against the 49ers and Packers, but not enough to reverse the other unfavorable outcomes.
The stability thing works both ways. Everyone wants stability, but if Shaun Alexander had gotten away, fans would be ripping Ruskell for failing to keep the league MVP. Even if Alexander had left and gotten hurt elsewhere, people would make the case that Alexander would have continued to flourish in the Seattle system. This would have been a reasonable point. The decision on Alexander had risks either way.
Five or six years ago, no one was emailing me to suggest Mike Holmgren should remain GM. I was getting a lot of email suggesting he should be fired as GM and even fired as head coach.
Let's wait to see what happens next season. If the team tanks, we'll have some more answers.