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You've Been Warned: Cards Are a Threat

Jan 11, 2010 – 12:00 AM
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Kevin Blackistone

Kevin Blackistone %BloggerTitle%

Larry FitzgeraldGLENDALE, Ariz. -- Veteran NFL linebacker Bertrand Berry, his left arm in a cast from hand to elbow, stood before his locker early Sunday evening in his team's home dressing room at University of Phoenix Stadium and considered all the Cardinals had just overcome -- surrendering 45 points, giving up nearly 500 yards in offense, coughing up a 21-point lead in the second half, missing a field goal that would've won the game in regulation and, finally, losing the coin flip to start overtime.

"This," he said with a smile and his booming voice, "is definitely good preparation for New Orleans."

In what must go down as the greatest NFL playoff game ever to have such an uninspiring start -- the first quarter ended with the Cardinals leading the Packers 17-0 -- the Cardinals eventually held off the Packers, 51-45 in overtime, in a manner that left the impression that they are, all of a sudden, the scariest team in this postseason. After all, in hanging half a hundred on the scoreboard, they also posted over 500 yards on offense, had three receivers combine for five touchdowns, were orchestrated by a nearly perfect quarterback in Kurt Warner, and used defense not only to cap the day -- linebacker Karlos Dansby's recovery and return for a touchdown of Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers' OT fumble -- but also to set the tone at the very start. They picked off Rodgers' first pass on the first snap, and forced a fumble on the Packers' second possession.

And the Cardinals even ran the football with success as Beanie Wells chalked up 91 yards on just 14 carries. That was something they weren't supposed to be able to do, especially against a Packers' defense that was considered among the best.

I am certain that the Cowboys, who shut down the Eagles for a second consecutive weekend on Saturday, are the most-complete playoff team in the NFC. But after witnessing what the Cardinals did to the Packers, I'm certain they are the NFC playoff team that is most dangerous.

The Cardinals are also the most-playoff experienced, at least based on how far they went last season.

With all the Saints (jumping to a 13-0 start) and the Vikings (steamrolling behind Brett Favre) did this season, it was easy to overlook the Cardinals and forget who they are -- -- "We're the NFC Champs," Cardinals' defensive tackle Darnell Dockett reminded.
They almost came from behind to beat Pittsburgh last February in the Super Bowl, remember.

Pittsburgh didn't even get this far this season, though.

And in the NFC, neither the Saints nor the Cowboys qualified for last year's playoffs. In fact, the only NFC team left in the playoffs this year that made last year's post-season other than Arizona, is Minnesota, which the Cardinals beat 30-17 in Glendale to start the month of December. The Vikings were one-and-done in last year's playoffs, too.

The Cardinals, however, started this playoff season very much like they started last year's: they won their home wild-card game. They just did so this time in record-breaking fashion.

"This is what football and the playoffs are all about," Cardinals' coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

I hope so, because I was beginning to worry that it was about blowouts and non-competitive matchups, because that characterized most of what was wild-card weekend to open the NFL playoffs. Even the Jets' upset of the Bengals wasn't very compelling.

But never before had so many points been scored in an NFL playoff game as the 96 for which the Cardinals and Packers combined. That was true because rarely before had two quarterbacks like Warner and Green Bay's Rodgers been so money at the same time. Warner was just a little more accurate, missing on just four of 33 attempts, not getting picked off and amassing 379 yards and five touchdowns. And, to think, it was reported before the game that Warner, 38, was considering hanging up his helmet if he didn't wind down the day as a winner.

As long as No. 13 is under center for the Cardinals, they can beat anyone and will beat most. Watching Warner throw passes like he did on Sunday is breathtaking. He threw darts when it was demanded and seemed to turn the football into a feather at other times. When Steve Breaston, the understudy to Warner's injured wideout Anquan Boldin, was being chased stride for stride down the sidelines on a route, for example, Warner dropped a lovely spiraling football into Breaston's chest just an inch over the outstretched hand of Packers' safety Nick Collins.

"When Kurt is playing at that level," Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, "seeing the field and being able to diagnose what the defense is doing to him, getting the ball out of his hands so quick, he's hard to deal with."

Impossible, really.

There are but two quarterbacks left in the NFL championship tournament after one weekend who can match Warner. They are, of course, Peyton Manning and Favre, and the only one the Cardinals and Warner have to sweat to get to the Super Bowl is Favre.

This isn't to dismiss the Cowboys' Tony Romo, but he just won his first playoff game on Saturday against the Eagles. This isn't to dismiss the prolific Drew Brees, either, who awaits the Cardinals in New Orleans this coming Saturday.

But they haven't done what Warner has done. They haven't blazed through the playoffs with great teams, like Warner's Rams, or mediocre teams, like the Cardinals who Warner took to within a breath of winning last February's Super Bowl.

And this Cardinals' team is better than last season's edition.

"It's totally different," Fitzgerald said of his team this go-round. "Last year, we didn't know what playing in the playoffs was about. This year, we have a lot more guys in here [locker room] who have the experience."

Indeed, Sunday turned out to be the script in which they lost the ultimate playoff game of last year. This time, however, they flipped it.
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