Cardinals are in a happy place

Arizona will host Eagles for NFC Championship

Larry Fitzgerald is enjoying his first taste of the playoffs. In two games, Arizona's star wide receiver has 14 catches for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Larry Fitzgerald is enjoying his first taste of the playoffs. In two games, Arizona's star wide receiver has 14 catches for 267 yards and two touchdowns. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
By Bob Baum
Associated Press / January 12, 2009
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PHOENIX - Fewer words in NFL history are more improbable than these: The Arizona Cardinals will host the NFC Championship game.

In the latest example of the Cardinals' incredible postseason good fortune, Philadelphia beat the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 23-11, yesterday. That means Arizona stays at home to face the Eagles next Sunday with the winner headed to the Super Bowl.

It's an amazing scenario for a Cardinals franchise that until this year had one playoff victory in 61 seasons.

"Obviously, we are excited that we have another home game to host the NFC championship at University of Phoenix Stadium," coach Ken Whisenhunt said yesterday. "It is huge for this organization, for our players, and especially for our fans."

The Cardinals are 7-2 at home this season, including a 30-24 wild-card playoff victory over Atlanta. That was followed by Arizona's 33-13 stunner at Carolina Saturday night that sent the Cardinals into their first NFC championship game.

Before Saturday, Arizona was the lone NFC team not to make it to a conference championship game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

"What an effort by the whole team," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "When you get to this level, you have to win as a team. That's what we've done these past two weeks. Nobody believed it. Nobody expected it."

The Cardinals had yesterday off and weren't available for interviews. It's safe to say they were rooting for the Eagles.

Instead of a trip to the cold of the Meadowlands to face the Giants, they stay in the desert to play in front of what promises to be a loud, boisterous crowd.

"I'm a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan," Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald said after Saturday's victory. "Our fans in Arizona have been waiting for a long time for an opportunity like this."

Arizona was routed by the Eagles, 48-20, Thanksgiving night, a debacle that came four days after the Cardinals lost at home to the Giants, 37-29. The Eagles' victory ignited a late-season run that put Philadelphia into the playoffs as the sixth and final seed in the NFC.

In that game, the Eagles' Brian Westbrook scored four touchdowns, two rushing and two on passes from Donovan McNabb, who had been benched for poor play in the previous game. Warner was intercepted three times.

Arizona's defense was awful, giving up 458 yards in Philadelphia, and was worse in a 47-7 loss to the Patriots in Foxborough Dec. 21, surrendering 514 yards. That defense bears no resemblance to the one that shut down two of the NFL's best running teams and had a 9-2 turnover advantage against Atlanta and Carolina.

On Saturday, five different players intercepted Jake Delhomme, including rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has picks in each of his last three games.

As they did against Atlanta, the Cardinals dominated Carolina at the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Antonio Smith stripped Delhomme of the ball, then recovered the fumble to set up the touchdown that put Arizona ahead for good in the first quarter. The play came a week after Smith sacked Matt Ryan in the end zone for a safety against Atlanta.

"It makes me feel good," Smith said. "I've been an underdog forever. It's about time we finally proved to everybody what we have."

Arizona dominated with one of its best players, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, watching in street clothes because of a strained left hamstring. He could be back against the Eagles.

Boldin tested the hamstring before the Carolina game but decided he couldn't go. He sounded optimistic about the coming week.

"It got a lot better from last week," Boldin said. "I definitely didn't want last week to be my last game, only playing a half in that game. I just wanted to continue to keep playing. The guys made me a promise - they told me they would give me another week. They were true to their word."

In Boldin's absence, Fitzgerald caught eight passes for 166 yards, including a 41-yarder that set up Arizona's first touchdown and a 29-yarder for a second-quarter touchdown that put the Cardinals up, 27-7.

In the first two playoff games of his career, Fitzgerald has 14 catches for 267 yards and two touchdowns.

"He's an outstanding football player in this league and everybody knows that, I think," Whisenhunt said. "When you get into the playoffs, you have to have your best players make plays, and Larry did that for us."

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