The Cardinals' defense huddles at the end of Sunday's 24-17 win, just before letting the New York fans know they had fulfilled their mission.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The play was textbook, really. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie considered going for the interception, but it was third down and he figured batting it down was a more sane option.
Then the cornerback whacked the ball with his left hand and almost immediately, he realized he hit it harder than he wanted. Even before DRC had landed from his leap he knew Hakeem Nicks was going to catch it in stride.
Sixty-two yards later, Nicks had a touchdown. The Giants had recaptured momentum as well as a 14-7 lead, and the Cardinals were stunned.
"You can laugh about it now," Rodgers-Cromartie said in the locker room afterward, a 24-17 win turning the play into a footnote. "But when it happened and they go and score, you're like, 'What the freak?' "
Yet that's the point, wasn't it? There was no freaking, not from the Cardinals. Maybe that's what came out of the victory in Giants Stadium. A statement was made, absolutely. The Cardinals were 3-0 on the road for the first time since 1982, beating an expected playoff team to get there.
What coach Ken Whisenhunt saw, however, was his team learning. If the Cardinals could have come back from that crushing 100-yard interception return by James Harrison in the Super Bowl to later take the lead, it was nothing to brush off a fluky second-quarter touchdown on the road during the sixth game of the season.
At least, not anymore.
"I know that was a play, if it had happened two years ago, it would have been tough for us to recover," Whisenhunt said.
There were plenty of moments that could have derailed the Cardinals Sunday. Tim Hightower's early fumble, short-circuiting what looked like would be another scoring opening drive. Kurt Warner's underthrown interception that led to the first points of the game for the Giants on a short field. The Giants' muffed punt return that had no one but Cardinals around a live loose ball – until Jason Wright, in a hurry, accidentally knocked it out of bounds in his haste to cover it up.
There was also the perfectly planned "Wildcat" play with safety Antrel Rolle at quarterback, throwing deep to a wide open Larry Fitzgerald for what should have been a touchdown, except that Fitzgerald dropped the ball – and it wouldn't have mattered anyway because of a holding penalty.
The Cards could have even folded on the final drive, when New York's Steve Smith made a spectacular grab on third-and-15 from the Giants' 4-yard line to pick up 34 yards and give the home fans hope when it looked like they'd have none. Rolle was in position to break up that play but couldn't. No matter, since he grabbed the interception to stomp out the Giants a few plays later.
"I think it's maturation," linebacker Clark Haggans said. "Defense, offense, special teams stepped up. And after that last 'Sunday Night Football' game against the Colts, there was a chip on our shoulder."
It's impossible to argue the loss to the Colts on the Cards' first "Sunday Night Football" appearance – that ugly 31-10 home defeat – was anything but the Cardinals' worst game of the season. Against the Giants, "we played our best game, I think, today," safety Adrian Wilson said.
That's how a team gets the league to pay attention.
"Outside of the playoffs last year, we haven't had a lot of quality wins, wins against tough opponents, teams that are playing well," Warner said. "These are kind of statement games where you gain confidence and you feel you can compete with anybody."
Just three weeks ago, the NFC West seemed like it had taken a turn from 2008. The 49ers had entered a renaissance. The Cardinals were coming off a bye trying to find their way.
As the calendar is about to shift to November, the division is 180 degrees different. The Niners are reeling, falling to .500, in the midst of a likely quarterback change and now needing to play the rampaging Colts next. The Seahawks are injury-riddled and must still play in Arizona.
The Cardinals are improving, trying to reach Haggans' goal of being a "team on the rise." They ran the ball better with Beanie Wells Sunday. They have a defense that doesn't fall apart. Their passing game still hasn't clicked like they believe it eventually will.
They play like nothing really can faze them, like they can handle anything they encounter. The defense wanted to get that point across right before the final gun, when they huddled on the sideline and then burst on to the field, bellowing their satisfaction with their accomplishment.
"People laughed at us when were 9-7 and limping into the playoffs," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said. "People laughed and said Pittsburgh was going to kill us in the Super Bowl. People are still laughing.
"But it's OK. We're still winning. We're that team that's under the radar. Take notice. You see us, it's going to be a fight."
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