The season rested on four minutes, four minutes the Cardinals had to eat up on offense or give the Atlanta Falcons a chance to steal a Wild Card playoff victory.
"In that situation, to win the game, we've lived by (the pass) all year," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "My thinking was, 'We've got to win this game.' And I told the offense (Friday) night, 'Let's put this on our shoulders.' "
Four minutes later, quarterback Kurt Warner was draining the clock with kneel-downs, and the Cardinals won their first playoff game in a decade.
Clinching the win when Warner found tight end Stephen Spach for a 23-yard gain on third-and-16, the Cardinals held on to a 30-24 victory over the Falcons Saturday. Now they wait for the outcome of Sunday's Minnesota-Philadelphia game – the Cards play in Carolina Saturday if Philadelphia wins; they play in New York if Minnesota wins.
"A lot of people said coming into this game we were the worst playoff team to ever get in (to the postseason)," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We rallied around that."
The Cardinals came together in an unexpected way, actually finishing with more rushing attempts (28 to 24) than the Falcons' impressive ground game and leaning on veteran running back Edgerrin James when the pass game had plenty of hiccups.
James, who resurfaced in the finale after half a season of mostly inactivity, gained 73 yards on 16 carries. He easily outgained Falcons Pro Bowler Michael Turner, who the Cardinals held to only 42 yards on 18 carries and left Atlanta's fortunes in the hands of rookie quarterback Matt Ryan.
"It seemed like they had guys everywhere," Turner said.
Ryan threw 40 passes, two for touchdowns, but he was intercepted by Ralph Brown and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and sacked for a crucial safety by defensive end Antonio Smith.
Ryan was also in the middle of the momentum-changing play of the game, when Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett blew up an attempted handoff by Ryan to Turner, the ball squirting to the turf. Safety Antrel Rolle picked it up and scampered 27 yards for a touchdown and a 21-17 lead early in the third quarter.
"I just hit everybody – I didn't even know it was a fumble," Dockett said. "We needed a spark."
The Cardinals seemed to have enough of that early. With James gaining early yards on the ground, the Cards used the run threat to run a flea-flicker, James-to-Warner-to-Larry Fitzgerald for a 42-yard touchdown pass.
"That doesn't work without (running the ball)," Fitzgerald said.
Anquan Boldin returned from a shoulder injury to haul in a 71-yard touchdown catch-and-run as well – ballooning the lead to 14-3 – but Boldin also pulled a hamstring on the play.
Without Boldin, Haley acknowledged the Cardinals' offense was also hamstrung. And the defense couldn't slow the Falcons, with Ryan pelting them with a short-passing game. At one point, the Falcons ran 27 of 30 offensive snaps in the game, and Atlanta had the ball for more than 21 minutes of the 30-minute first half.
After halftime, however, Atlanta couldn't score again until 4:15 remained in the game. and the Cardinals actually ended up winning time of possession, 30:02 to 29:58.
"There are ups and downs in a football game," safety Adrian Wilson said. "It's four quarters. The second quarter they did a great job. We made adjustments, and we won the game, bottom line."
When Ryan was able to throw a five-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White with just over four minutes left, it was left to the Cardinals' offense. The Cards had grinded out a 14-play drive in the third quarter for their final touchdown, nine of them runs, and were hopeful to do the same.
Haley, however, wasn't going to simply run the ball into the line and pray the Cards would break a long gain. James and Tim Hightower ran the ball, but it was Warner's 15-yard pass to Fitzgerald that started the drive, a 25-yard completion to Steve Breaston that changed field position, and finally, the unlikely toss to Spach to end Atlanta hopes.
Asked what it felt like to seal the deal, Spach smiled. "We sealed the deal as a team," he said.
The celebration was not exactly muted, not after the crowd of 62,848 bellowed in appreciation of Spach's final grab. The Cardinals understood the difficulty of their accomplishment -- "The best play to me was Kurt taking that knee," Dockett said – and also understand they aren't finished.
The Panthers or the Giants await.
"You don't want to be somebody that is full of potential but never reached that potential," James said. "We have so much potential on this team, so why not go out and live up to our potential?"