The game was clinched on a third-and-16, 23-yard pass from Captain Kurt to Mr. Spach. It was logical.
Most teams would've kept it on the ground and probably had to punt, giving their opponent another chance to score and win the game. But most teams don't have Arizona's passing attack. So Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd "Comet" Haley and quarterback Kurt Warner went at clutch-time with what had gotten them there -- Warner's arm.
Only, this time, he lasered it over the middle to not-long-ago-acquired tight end Stephen Spach (pictured in dreds from his Fresno State days), who nobody on the Atlanta Falcons -- or elsewhere in the universe -- thought Arizona would throw to with the game in the balance Saturday afternoon. Warner then took a knee, and that was that.
But a lot happened before the Cardinals' first-ever home playoff game ended in a 30-24 Arizona victory at University of Phoenix Stadium. We were more and more amazed as things progressed.
It started with three and out for the Cards, but then came cornerback Ralph Brown's interception of Atlanta QB Matt Ryan's first pass that gave Arizona the ball back. After that, Edgerrin James ran three times and took a handoff on a flea-flicker that resulted in a 42-yard pass from Warner to Larry Fitzgerald -- who again astounded with a leaping, highlight-reel reception in the end zone.
But Ryan, NFL Rookie of the Year, brought his team back, and by half-time, the score was 17-14 Atlanta.
Then came the play of the game, courtesy of Arizona's defense. Very early in the third quarter, Cardinals defensive end Darnell Docket messed up a handoff by Ryan, and safety Antrel Rolle picked up the fumble and ran 27 yards for a score. The Cardinals held the lead for the rest of the game.
Taking advantage of Atlanta's poor field position all day, the Cards mostly played great defense. Linebacker Karlos Dansby nearly single-handedly stopped Atlanta's heralded running game, with eight tackles, three of them for losses. Defensive end Antonio Smith sacked Ryan for a safety in the fourth quarter. And rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie snagged his fifth interception of the season.
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As for Arizona's much-maligned offensive line, even the weak right side of Levi Brown and Deuce Latui played well. The good line play was largely responsible for James' second good rushing weekend in a row. After barreling for 100 yards in the regular season finale against Seattle, he had 73 against Atlanta. The back who replaced James for half the season, Tim Hightower, had 23 yards and a touchdown.
The last two games have given rise to speculation that Edge will be back in a Cardinals' uniform next year, despite his frustration over being benched (with limited carries) until two games ago. He and a suddenly motivated offensive line have given Arizona's offense, last in the league in rushing, a desperately needed new dimension.
Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt finally got a complete game from his team, or as close to it as the Cardinals (who may need a few upgrades to make a serious run at a championship) can muster. But hope's still alive: Arizona's drawn the Carolina Panthers in the second round of the playoffs (it could've been the fearsome Giants). The game's at 6:15 p.m. next Saturday in Charlotte.
The Panthers have gotten much better since they were lucky to win at home against Arizona, 27-23, on October 26. But, considering their cosmic win over Atlanta, so have the Cardinals. -- Rick Barrs