January 20, 2009

Can Colossal Cards Continue Climb?

The Arizona Cardinals might very well be the most unlikely NFC champion I have ever encountered. They struggled badly down the stretch; couldn't stop anyone on defense; and they looked like they had packed it in as wild-card weekend approached.

Their initial inability to sell out their play-off game against Atlanta that week told the whole story: This team was going nowhere. Or so their fans (and the experts) thought.

Then the Cards shocked the world and won. But everyone still dismissed them. After all they had beaten a very young Falcons team headed by the rookie Matt Ryan. There was no way they would challenge the second seeded Panthers.

However, the Cardinals played the game of their lives, punishing Carolina to earn a trip to the NFC Championship game against the Eagles.

Again, the football world decided that with the Eagles hot streak and NFC Championship experience, Arizona would be unable to win.

Kurt Warner blew off those doubts and an Eagles pass rush guiding the Cardinals to a 24-6 first half lead.

The Eagles would come back to take a 25-24 lead, but Warner led a brilliant 14 play drive, capped by a touchdown pass to Tim Hightower and a two-point conversion. The defense held and the Cards won their first NFC Championship.

What enabled the Cardinals to give themselves this opportunity to play in the Super Bowl? Several factors strike me as the reason the Cardinals were able to turn things around just as the postseason began.

1. Larry Fitzgerald: This a no-brainer. Fitzgerald might the be the first receiver since Rice to ever have this much of an impact on the game from the receiver position. What an easy call for the Cards when they were facing a first-and-goal from the Eagles two. Fitzgerald wide to the left in single coverage; not a safety in sight. Too simple. The Eagles should have known better especially with Fitzgerald being the only receiver in the formation.

Fitzgerald forces opposing teams to alter their game plans just because of his presence. Not many receivers demand such constant attention.

2. The Offensive line: The big uglies have really stepped up their game. The Cards gave up 28 sacks during the season, which is solid, but the run blocking has improved tremendously the past few weeks.

Edgerrin James actually ripped off a few 10+ yard runs against Philly as the Cards rushed for 102 yards, and the team rushed for over 140 yards against Carolina. In addition, Warner has only hit the deck three times this postseason while facing the likes of Jim Johnson's blitz-happy Eagles, John Abraham, and Julius Peppers.

The O-line is spearheaded by coach Russ Grimm, a former Hog, and a terrific coach. Grimm has made some headlines for his hard-nosed coaching style and should make a great head coach at some point down the road.

3. Kurt Warner: Warner resurrected his career this season, and the play-offs are a testament to his rediscovered talent. Warner led the winning 14 play drive with great efficiency last week and with all the weapons around him, he can be unstoppable.

The O-line's stability has really aided Warner, who has struggled after getting hit throughout his career (remember his meltdowns in St. Louis and New York). He lost his confidence in St. Louis, and held the ball too long in New York.

Now with solid protection, Warner has been able to recapture his confidence and distribute the ball to all the playmakers at his disposal.

4. Ken Whisenhunt: He has really motivated his team in a major way somewhere in the past month. They appeared dead in the water, but Whisenhunt rallied the troops, and now they are just one win away from becoming Super Bowl champions.

Whisenhunt has never been afraid to put what he believes are the best players on the field rather than the big names. Edgerrin James and Matt Leinart learned that the hard way.

Leinart was benched in favor of Warner after a preseason QB competition. Many questioned this move because Leinart appeared to be the future while Warner appeared to be on the downside of his career. This move raised a lot of questions concerning Leinart's ability to be a starter in the NFL.

James was demoted in the middle of the season for Hightower who became a valuable asset especially catching passes out of the backfield. James has returned as a starter however.

What did this accomplish? Firstly I believe it lit a fire under James. James doesn't want to sit. He never has been a backup in this league. Also, I think it kept James' legs fresh for the postseason. Now both backs contribute heavily.

Whisenhunt has really impressed me. Great move by Arizona to bring him in.

5. The defense: The linebackers are playing unbelievable football. Karlos Dansby and Chike Okeafor have been playing at a high level. The front seven has been stopping the run and winning the battle in the trenches.

The secondary has been inconsistent, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has great cover skills on deep balls. Adrian Wilson is a leader and a force, but the secondary plays too soft too much.

Still, the defense is holding its own; something they couldn't do just a month ago. 48 points in Philly, 47 in New England; things looked grim. Credit the players for stepping up and regaining a swagger. Credit Clancy Pendergast for heading up the turnaround.

Now for the big question. Can Arizona keep these factors churning at all cylinders? They have our attention. Now can they keep it?

They have a solid mix of veterans and youngsters. They possess the firepower, and most importantly they have phenomenal coaching which has tied this team together. I don't see why we should keep doubting.

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