Finally, we get to report good news about the Arizona Cardinals, who finished the regular season 9-7 -- just as we predicted they would when we named Ken Whisenhunt top head coach in the PHX in our 2008 Best Of edition.
Our prediction was based on the Cardinals going 8-8 last season behind injured-for-half-the-year Kurt Warner. Finishing .500 was a miracle.
In the Cardinals' 34-21 home win over the 4-11 Seattle Seahawks on Sunday afternoon, a healthy Warner threw four touchdown passes and went 19 of 30 for 263 yards.
On top of that, Edgerrin James (pictured above) -- who'd been benched for half this season -- rushed for 100 yards (he moved ahead of legendary Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, he of "immaculate reception" fame, on the all-time list).
It was good to see Whisenhunt (pictured below) live up to our best coach honor by inspiring his offensive line to play well enough to establish some semblance of a runnng game, something that's been missing from the team's repertoire almost all year.
James was playing behind young running back Tim Hightower, but for lots of reasons, Hightower wasn't getting it done. A couple of them weren't his fault: the poor offensive line and the fact that the Cardinals rely way to much on Warner and the passing game.
We say way too much, because no team in history's made the playoffs, much less gone very far in them, passing as much as the Cardinals have. A balanced attack keeps defenses guessing, and the Cardinals have been obvious to decent teams all season -- resulting in lossses like last Sunday's blowout against the Patriots.
Who, by the way, play in such a tough division that they'll sit out the post-seson, at 11-5, while the Cardinals will host the Atlanta Falcons in their first-ever home playoff game Saturday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium.
There was a lot to like about the Cardinals in Seattle Coach Mike Holmgren's last game as head coach (it was good to send him into retirement with a spanking):
* The play of wide-outs Larry Fitzgerald (130 yards receiving) and Steve Breaston (91 yards). Fitzgerald caught two touchdown passes and Breaston one. One of Fitzgerald's grabs was a 50-yard bomb from Warner that only the tall, burly Pro Bowler could've brought down with a defender riding his back.
* Matt Leinart's relief of Warner in the fourth quarter; he went five of eight for 83 yards and set up two Neil Rackers' field goals. It'll be interesting to see if Arizona sticks with Warner over Leinart next year, impressive stats by the aging QB (mostly against NFL Worst teams) or not. Leinart's poise in the last two games should give Whisenhunt something to think about.
It would be surprising -- given their colossal failures in the previous two games against New England and Minnesota -- for the Cardinals to advance in the playoffs. The Falcons, who finished the regular season 11-5 behind a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback in an amazing turnaround from last year, have both a passing and a running attack.
But Atlanta just barely beat NFC West doormat St. Louis 31-27 in its season finale, and its weak defensive secondary will have a hard time containing Fitzgerald, Breaston, receiver Jerheme Urban (who caught four passes for 43 yards and a TD against the 'Hawks), and the great Anquan Boldin, who should be healthy enough to play against the Falcons.
Remember, nobody expected the wild card New York Giants to win the last Super Bowl, and nobody expected the super-talented Dallas Cowboys, who many picked to go all the way this year, to be eliminated from the playoffs. Dallas' 44-6 loss to Philadelphia on Sunday puts last week's 47-7 Cardinals whacking by New England in some perspective.
Will the Cardinals disappoint again? Probably. But we hope Coach Whisenhunt can pull a few of those trick plays he loves out of his ballcap -- only this time make them work. Plus, we hope he can inspire his offensive line to play above their heads and that he will breathe some life into his sagging defense.
Then, maybe, just maybe... -- Rick Barrs