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A Victory, No Matter How

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Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers slides in celebration after kicking a 31-yard field goal to beat the Falcons, 30-27, in overtime Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Neil Rackers ran toward the end zone after his 31-yard kick was good, a field goal that secured a 30-27 overtime win over Atlanta, sliding on his knees in celebration.

But that was the extent of the thrill for the Cardinals Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

There were smiles, to be sure. The smiles, though, were of disaster averted. That's what happens when a team builds a 10-point lead at home and looks like it will easily handle its business against the struggling Falcons – only to need a desperate late drive just to tie the game.

The Cards did that, though, managing a 63-yard drive with 1:38 left to get Rackers' 29-yard field goal to tie it, before embarking on the winning 58-yard drive on the first possession of overtime.

Then they let out a collective sigh of relief.

"I have been asking myself this question for a long time," linebacker Calvin Pace said. "Why do we have to make it an ESPN Classic every time we play?"

Pace should know by now, though, it's who these Cardinals are. They have played an NFL-high 12 games decided by eight points or less. Even in games like Sunday's – which should not have been close the way the Cards were in control – they eventually create ulcer-like symptoms.

"Our hearts are stronger" because of it, quarterback Kurt Warner said.

The chance at .500 remains alive for the Cards (7-8) with St. Louis visiting next weekend. With the chance at the playoffs a memory, that remains the top goal.

If they need a kick, they can feel comfortable turning to Rackers, who went 3-for-3 on the day and converted his overtime attempt without an echo of the overtime miss that cost the Cards their home game against San Francisco.

"I put 'em both through," Rackers said. "Maybe it was the Big Man's way of giving me a Christmas gift."

If they need a reception, they know they can turn to wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who continued to play through his toe injury to rip through the Falcons for 13 catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns. And they still have Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald, whose relatively quiet 6-for-72 day included a huge 19-yard catch in overtime to set up Rackers' heroics.

"A lot of people say (there is nothing to play for) but we think there is a lot at stake," Boldin said. "I think we are a lot better off finishing at 8-and-8 then we are finishing 6-and-10. We want to close on a good note."

And they have Warner, who quietly had a statistically spectacular day, completing 36-of-53 passes for 361 yards, three touchdowns and no turnovers.

It should have added up to more than it did.

Warner hit running back J.J. Arrington for a four-yard touchdown pass with 16 seconds left in the first half for a 24-14 lead, and the Cards were in control.

But they couldn't score.

In the third quarter, the Cards twice moved inside the Atlanta 40 before stalling, once at the Falcons' 36 and once at the Falcons' 37. In both cases – with the Cards' defense having few problems with the Atlanta offense – coach Ken Whisenhunt passed on possible 54- and 53-yard Rackers' field-goal tries in order to punt.

The second, though, preceeded a Falcons' drive for a field goal to cut the lead to seven. And with the Falcons stacking the line to stop Cardinals running back Edgerrin James (only 76 yards on 25 carries), the Cards gained just four yards on three passes on the next possession.

Suddenly, the Falcons found a way to move the ball by throwing from the shotgun. Their next drive produced a touchdown, the next a go-ahead field goal with just 98 seconds left.

"I didn't do a very good job in the call-playing situations," Whisenhunt said. "We were trying to run the ball and we were trying to take the clock down but maybe we lost some of our aggressiveness with what we were doing in the first half."

Up stepped Warner, who insisted afterward with the situation, "I like our chances."

The Falcons never got the ball back again, watching the drive for the first Rackers' kick end with the clock hitting zero and then losing the coin toss in overtime.

"I wanted to just break down and cry," Falcons receiver Roddy White said. "We can't get any breaks.  We never get any breaks. Somebody up there doesn't want us to win any football games."

Falcons quarterback Chris Redman, playing in only his third game after two years away from the NFL and four years away from actually seeing the field, completed 28-of-42 passes for 315 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. White had 12 catches for 141 yards while Atlanta (3-12) sliced up the Cards' defense late.

Fortunately, it didn't matter.

"I don't know how I could have stomached that one if we had come out on the losing end," Pace said, adding, "we always talk about playoffs, but you've got to be able to go out and stomp on them. That is the mentality we've got to get."

That is big-picture talk, however. With Christmas coming and the players off – regardless of the outcome – until Wednesday, the more immediate issue was feeling good this time of year.

A loss most certainly wouldn't have done that. A win, any win, worked well enough.

"I was just saying that in the shower," defensive end Antonio Smith said. "I was like, 'Wooo, I am glad we won, because this locker room could be a whole different kind of place.' "


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 12/23/07.

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