Antrel Rolle returns a blocked field goal for what turned out to be an 83-yard touchdown during the Cardinals' blowout win in Jacksonville Sunday.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the muted din of the Cardinals' postgame locker room, with media buzzing and players trying to dress despite the perpetual humidity-induced sweating, tackle Mike Gandy let out a primal yell.
Fellow lineman Reggie Wells let go a small smile in response. Gandy's release of emotion could have been come from anyone on the team, with the happiness of the Cardinals' 31-17 victory over the Jaguars for their first win of the season. The last time they had reveled in victory it was late January and the NFC Championship.
Now, it seemed, the season could truly begin.
"The first win is so big," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. "You had all offseason, all training camp, so much time built up, to finally get it on the road on the East coast it means a lot."
The Cardinals had not won a game with a 10 a.m. (Arizona time) start since defeated the Panthers early in the 2002 season. But like last season, when the offense suddenly clicked in the second game of the year – coincidentally, the Cards also had 31 points in that win over Miami – quarterback Kurt Warner directed a Game 2 masterpiece.
With the team's top three receivers playing together for the first time since the preseason opener, Warner set an NFL record by completing 92.3 percent of his passes, connecting on 24 of 26 throws for 243 yards and two touchdowns. The old record was Cleveland's Vinny Testaverde (91.3), who completed 21 of 23 against the Rams back in 1993.
The Cardinals (1-1) were up 24-3 at halftime and never looked back.
"This was something we needed," Warner said, "something we've been waiting for for a while."
As good as the offense looked, the game turned on special teams. The Cardinals had a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter and forced a punt, where safety Antrel Rolle – who has become the punt returner in place of the banged-up Steve Breaston – couldn't decide whether or not to field the punt and let it bounce.
Rolle compounded the problem by failing to yell for his teammates to get out of the way, and the ball hit cornerback Greg Toler, allowing the Jaguars to recover.
The defense managed to hold Jacksonville (0-2) to three-and-out – the Jaguars were angry cornerback Bryant McFadden wasn't called for pass interference on wideout Torry Holt on third down – and then 6-foot-8 Calais Campbell blocked the field-goal attempt. The ball bounced to Rolle, who zig-zagged down the field 83 yards for a touchdown.
"It was definitely a momentum-changer," said Rolle, who said he was clipped on the second play of the game and was dealing with a swollen knee the rest of the game."
The Cards benefitted from a few plays like that. Tight end Anthony Becht twice rescued rookie running back Beanie Wells, who fumbled twice. The first time Becht jumped on Wells' fumble inside the Jacksonville 5-yard line, saving the Cards' first touchdown chance. The second Becht managed to touch down Jaguars cornerback Rashean Mathis to negate a 45-yard return late in the first half.
Those were the plays that went against the Cards in the season opener. The penalties were down, and came at bad times for the Jaguars on this afternoon. And the crowd, already dotted with thousands of empty seats, turned on the home team as the Cards pulled away.
For the Cardinals, it meant a enjoyable if long plane trip home, knowing there is a national audience waiting for next week's "Sunday Night Football" telecast at home against the Colts.
"There's a team that's just been under the surface, of making plays and being a good football team," coach Ken Whisenhunt said he told his players. "We still have work to do, but we made some plays in that direction today, and that's exciting."
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