These aren’t your father’s Cardinals. In fact, they aren’t your grandfather’s Cardinals either.
Over the last six decades, the Arizona Cardinals have qualified for the postseason just six times. I repeat, six times in 60 years. During that pitiful span the Cards have won a total of four playoff games, with two of those victories coming this year. Arizona remains one of only six teams to have never made it to a Super Bowl, so to say we’re in a bit of uncharted waters here is a vast understatement.
But that’s what’s at stake this weekend as the Cardinals host the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game. If head coach Kurt Whisenhunt’s bunch can handle the red-hot Eagles, they will officially become the most unlikely Super Bowl team of my lifetime.
Led by quarterback Kurt Warner and the best receiving duo in the NFL, the Cardinals are an enjoyable team to watch. When healthy, Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin are both capable of taking over a game at a moment’s notice. With Boldin sidelined last week, it was readily apparent to everyone involved that Fitzgerald was central figure for the Cardinals. And yet, the Carolina Panthers were unable to contain him.
On a day where Warner passed for just 220 yards, Fitzgerald hauled in eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown. Let me spell that out for you – the rest of the team had just 54 receiving yards. The Cardinals double and sometimes triple teamed Panthers wide out Steve Smith, basically saying “You’re going to have to beat us without your best playmaker.” But Carolina was either unwilling or unable to do the same against Fitzgerald.
The kicker is, Carolina actually has a running game. No one was hotter than running back DeAngelo Williams the final month of the season and yet, the Panthers only gave him 12 carries. Instead, they put the ball in the hands of quarterback Jake Dehomme and ended up on the wrong end of a 33-13 ass whipping after Delhomme’s six turnover night.
So now we get the unlikeliest of NFC championship games – the spunky Arizona Cardinals versus the surging Philadelphia Eagles. While the Eagles look an awful lot like last year’s Super Bowl winner, the New York Giants, the Cards don’t fit the mold of legitimate contenders. The Eagles have won six of their last seven games and have raised their level of play from the moment quarterback Donovan McNabb was re-inserted back into the starting lineup after his benching Nov. 23.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, needed a win over a Seattle Seahawks team that mailed it in for Mike Holmgren’s final season just to finish with a winning record. Prior to the regular season finale, Arizona lost three of its last four games – each by more than 20 points. If anyone out there says they saw this coming, they’re either a blind homer, related to a member of the Arizona Cardinals or a damn, dirty liar.
But that’s what makes this so special. Who wants to see the same teams – the New England Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers, etc. – winning the Lombardi trophy year after year? This gives hope to the little guys and makes the games more enjoyable for the casual fans. Everyone loves to root for the underdog and it’s always more fun to see a team like George Mason make the Final Four than a perennial favorite like Duke or North Carolina. The Cards sitting just one win away from their first Super Bowl trip in franchise history is instantly must-see TV.
And don’t think for a minute that the good people of Arizona aren’t jumping all over this. Tickets for the NFC championship game sold out in just six minutes for a stadium where the home team fans are routinely outnumbered. Why is that? Because the Cards have stunk for as long as anyone can remember.
If you are 25 years old or less, you’ve only seen the Arizona Cardinals qualify for the playoffs once in your lifetime. And the Cardinals record since 1983 is 155-258-2, meaning the Cards have averaged 10 losses a season for your entire life.
Eagles fans are hoping to face Baltimore in the Super Bowl so McNabb can avenge the loss that got him temporarily benched. The Steelers are hoping to face the Eagles in a Pennsylvania blue-collar battle. No one expects the Cardinals to get to the big dance, which is fine by them.
They’re playing with house money. No one thought they’d beat the Atlanta Falcons or the Carolina Panthers, but they did. And there’s a very real possibility that this time next week we’ll be discussing how the Cardinals once again shocked the world by beating a supposedly superior opponent.
Brian Murphy is an award-winning sportswriter who also goes by the name Homer McFanboy. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.