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Headed To Tampa: Cardinals Beat Eagles To Reach Super Bowl

Late Hightower touchdown provides 32-25 win as improbable ride continues

Linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and linebacker Gerald Hayes celebrate with the Halas Trophy after winning the NFC championship Sunday night.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Darnell Dockett and linebacker Gerald Hayes celebrate with the Halas Trophy after winning the NFC championship Sunday night.

The confetti rained down, the crowd of 70,000-plus screamed and the Arizona Cardinals were going to the Super Bowl, while veteran defensive tackle Bryan Robinson had a single thought crawl through his head.

"Really, I was thinking, 'Not bad for the worst playoff team ever,' " Robinson said.

The Cards accomplished the improbable Sunday – improbable to everyone except perhaps themselves – by beating the Philadelphia Eagles, 32-25, in the NFC Championship at University of Phoenix. Tampa comes next, for Super Bowl XLIII and a chance to be champions of the NFL.

A dizzying thought to be sure.

"Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "I like the way that sounds."

The accomplishment was "very good," owner Bill Bidwill said while accepting the Halas Trophy on the field afterward, although "I imagine there are some superlatives I could add to it, but I can't think of any right now."

Fittingly, the game was decided by the Cardinals' offense.

The Cards (12-7) dominated the first half and led 24-6 at halftime. But the Eagles wrested control of the game in the third quarter, outgaining Arizona, 165 yards to 8.

When Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb completed a 62-yard bomb to DeSean Jackson just over the outstretched fingers of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Philadelphia had taken a 25-24 lead with 10:45 left in the game.

"That last drive when we all looked at each other and said, 'This is it, we're going to win this game,' " fullback Terrelle Smith said.

Taking over on their own 28-yard line, the Cardinals moved to the Philadelphia 8 with 2:59 left in the game, converting at one point a fourth-and-1 when running back Tim Hightower scooted around right end for a six-yard gain.

Facing a third-and-goal, Warner -- who had his best game ever against Philadelphia's blitzing defense – threw a middle screen to Hightower. Hightower made a couple of moves before barreling into the end zone.

"I was speechless," Hightower said. "I saw the end zone and my eyes lit up. It was one of the best feelings to know the coaches have confidence in you in one of the most crucial situations of the game."

The play was Warner's fourth touchdown pass of the game. On the next play, Warner found tight end Ben Patrick for a two-point conversion, and the Cards had a seven-point lead with 2:53 left.

The drive "was an indication of our growth as team and that's what it's really all about," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

The defense, which had been punctured plenty in the second half after the stellar first half, drew on the offense's success. The Eagles (11-7-1) drove from their own 20 to the Arizona 47, but there McNabb threw four straight incompletions, with cornerback Rod Hood covering wide receiver Kevin Curtis on the final play.

"The coolest thing throughout was, offense and defense, we didn't panic," Robinson said. "When they scored on us, (wide receiver) Anquan (Boldin) looked at me and said, 'We've got it.'

"We truly feed off each other. Lackluster third quarter, but it's all worth it right now to be called NFC Champs."

Warner was spectacular, completing 21-of-28 passes for 279 yards. Nine of the passes when to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who had 152 yards and an NFC Championship-record-tying three touchdown catches.

The Cards did have to punt one final time, but the Eagles' last ditch multi-lateral play with nine seconds left on their own 7 turned into a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Darnell Dockett.

That's when Whisenhunt said he finally felt like the team had won. The celebrations had begun.

"I can't even put this into words," said safety Adrian Wilson, the longest-tenured Cardinal. "It has been a roller-coaster ride for eight years. To finally get to this point, to win an NFC Championship, means a lot. I've been saying this all night, the Arizona Cardinals just changed their stripes."

And now, after a week, they will head to Florida to cap their incredible season.

"We are happy to have the NFC Champion trophy," Smith said, "but we want that Super Bowl trophy."

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