Coach Ken Whisenhunt, sporting a division championship hat, congratulates the team on the charter flight home from Detroit Sunday night.
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN DETROIT AND PHOENIX, APPROXIMATELY 30,000 FEET – The plane was quiet and, as most flights home, dark.
Then the lights went on, waking some and disturbing others from their movies. Coach Ken Whisenhunt had something to report.
"Congratulations, gentlemen," Whisenhunt said over the plane's loudspeaker. "You're 2009 NFC West champions. Great job, guys. San Francisco lost, Philadelphia won, 27-13.
"Back-to-back NFC West champions. Congratulations."
Players and coaches broke into applause. Hats were handed out commemorating the occasion. A couple of hours prior, the Cardinals had withstood a surprising battle from the Lions at Ford Field, leaving them less than satisfied with the performance. But the theme afterward was the 31-24 win counted as much as any other.
If that was doubted, the proof came when the news of the Niners' loss was delivered to the pilots and then to everyone else, the NFC West race having officially ended after the combination of Sunday's results.
"We knew it could happen," defensive end Calais Campbell said, his 6-foot-8 frame filling up the plane's tiny aisle. "We knew on our way home we could be crowned champs."
It was a day of contradictions in many ways. The Cards' offense sputtered often. Yet the Cards came up with 31 points and scored when it was crucial.
"We can build off this," Whisenhunt said. "There are a lot of teams out there who have won games when they didn't play their best and that's what you have to do."
Whisenhunt acknowledged the Cards were "out of sync" in the passing game. There were too many mental mistakes on the day, such as one play where the Lions brought two extra blitzers and the two backs charged with picking them up each went for the same defender, leaving the other open.
In the same breath, Whisenhunt indicated the passing game was the least of the Cardinals' worries, insisting "we can step on the field tomorrow and that will be OK."
Quarterback Kurt Warner felt the same, saying the Cardinals were completely confident they would take the ball on the last possession in a 24-24 game and manage to drive for a game-winning score.
"We felt we weren't going to be denied," Warner said. "You'd just like to see that sense of urgency a lot sooner."
The mistakes of Sunday aren't lost on the Cardinals, division championship or no. The locker room was relatively subdued after such a dramatic win in part because the Cards have learned how to better approach each outcome, but also because they too expected something better.
Bryan Robinson talked about the fight in the Lions and Darnell Dockett said it was difficult to mess with players who were essentially fighting for their jobs, but safety Adrian Wilson noted the warning sign that "this is a game that shows we can't just show up and beat anybody."
It's a lesson learned going into next week's game against one-win St. Louis.
At least the Cards will be doing it as division champs.
Coming into this season, the Cards were coming off a Super Bowl loss, a tag that had – coincidentally or not – doomed eight of the previous 10 such teams to a postseason home the following season. The Cards easily avoided that trend.
"Everybody has superstitions," tackle Jeremy Bridges said, "but back-to-back can't be beat."
That's why, even when the lights went back out on the flight, the players – many of which kept their hats on for the rest of the ride – kept buzzing with conversation.
The Cardinals have two games left and then the playoffs start. They know this drill, having just been there. The subsequent steps couldn't come without the first – and that just happened to come down on a plane high above the ground.
"I am ecstatic," linebacker Bertrand Berry said. "But we still have work to do."
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