Defiant Cardinals reach 1st Super Bowl
Those who questioned the Arizona Cardinals' participation in the NFL playoffs were forced to watch the men in red's resolve for a third straight week.
After squandering an 18-point lead in the second half, the Cardinals made an impressive drive late in the fourth quarter to upend the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in the NFC championship game Sunday in Glendale, Ariz.
Rookie running back Tim Hightower caught an eight-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kurt Warner with 2:53 remaining to send the Cardinals to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla.
The victory gives Arizona its first trip to the big game since the Super Bowl was created in 1967, a time when the NFL champion battled the winner of the old American Football League for the trophy.
The Cardinals will also attempt to win their first league championship since winning the NFL title back in 1947.
For his part, Warner has already been to a pair of Super Bowls, winning one with the St. Louis Rams in 2000 en route to an MVP award. He lost one when the Rams were upset by the New England Patriots two years later.
Arizona advanced to the NFC title game with a 30-24 wild card victory over Atlanta, and a 33-13 upset win at Carolina in the divisional playoffs.
"We had our struggles this year and I don't think anybody really knew what to expect coming into the playoffs," Warner said. "But I saw a bunch of guys band together and believe in one another and really do something that nobody expected us to do."
His teammates said a Super Bowl appearance wouldn't have been possible without their quarterback.
"He's been here before," said receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who made nine receptions for 152 yards and three first-half touchdowns. "He's been where we're all trying to go. He's held that trophy up, and we've leaned on him this whole postseason."
Arizona will play the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 on Sunday.
Many football pundits thought the Cardinals, the NFC West champions with a mediocre 9-7 regular-season record, were the worst post-season team in NFL history and would suffer a quick exit.
But the Cardinals refused to fold, using a 14-play, 72-yard touchdown drive to secure their ticket to the Super Bowl.
Warner threw for 279 yards and four TDs, but Fitzgerald was the offensive star for the Cardinals. Fitzgerald broke future Hall of Famer Jerry Rice's record for receiving yards in a single post-season, with 419.
Trailing by one point late in the fourth, the Cardinals faced a daunting task of scoring against a rejuvenated Eagles defence, which held Arizona pointless through most of the last two quarters.
Starting at his own 28-yard line, Warner marched the Cardinals down the field with precision by completing six passes.
Facing a third-and-eight, Warner tossed a screen pass to Hightower, who bullied his way into the end zone. Warner then found tight end Ben Patrick for the two-point conversion.
"Kurt's an unbelievable guy," Hightower said. "He's the leader of our team. We're fortunate to have a guy like that. You couldn't ask for a better guy."
The Cardinals' defence then held Philadelphia on its next possession to preserve the victory.
Arizona had looked posed to run away with the game in the first half, taking a 24-6 lead on the strength of three Fitzgerald TDs.
However, the Eagles found their rhythm in second half, scoring 19 unanswered points in an 8:23 span. Tight end Brent Celek caught the first two Donovan McNabb touchdown passes.
Kicker David Akers missed the extra point on the second score, but the Cardinals' advantage was still reduced to 24-19 with 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
McNabb put Philadelphia up 25-24 just 2:15 into the fourth quarter, hitting receiver DeSean Jackson on a 62-yard TD strike. McNabb finished the game with 375 throwing yards, three touchdown plays and an interception.
With files from the Associated Press