Arizona Cardinals Home: The official source of the latest Cardinals headlines, news, videos, photos, tickets, rosters and game day information

Cardinals Folktales

Presented by
Folktales Inside Snow Day
Folktales: Snow Day To Tampa Bay
How rough loss in brutal New England, and days that followed, shaped a Super Bowl run
By Darren Urban Dec 23, 2021
Photographs By Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals had just arrived in Tampa a few hours earlier for their week before Super Bowl XLIII, and now coach Ken Whisenhunt and star safety Adrian Wilson were being driven downtown to make a live appearance on NFL Network.

The driver was also an NFL Network producer, not that it probably mattered. At that point, Whisenhunt, Wilson and all the Cardinals had grown tired of the constant criticism of a team that now had the chance to win a title.

Both Whisenhunt and Wilson got in some good-natured digs at their chauffeur during the ride. Then, as they sat down on the set with host Rich Eisen – and Eisen quickly and purposefully started lauding the Cardinals for their Super Bowl run – Whisenhunt smiled.

"That's nice, Rich, for a change," the coach told Eisen and the national audience watching.

"It's hard when people are saying you are the worst team ever on the history of the playoffs," Whisenhunt added. "This is our first chance to get to the Super Bowl. When you're constantly hearing from a lot of people you aren't very good, yes, absolutely you can use it. And it's helped us."

The worst team in playoff history? Certainly not. Not by the end of that memorable playoff run, the one that cemented Larry Fitzgerald as a superstar and brought the Cardinals within 157 seconds of a Lombardi Trophy. Those were words that ultimately "Inside the NFL" analyst Cris Collinsworth came to regret.

At the time they were uttered, however, the Cardinals had done little to show otherwise. They had clinched the NFC West early, but they had also dipped into a tailspin otherwise, losing badly to the Giants, Eagles and Vikings. Then came the ugly, a 47-7 loss in the snow at New England that precipitated the comment.

"I think we all collectively just said, 'OK, that's who we are? That's what y'all think?' " defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "We were, 'OK, we're gonna prove it to you.' "

As quarterback Kurt Warner declared after the eventual playoff win in Carolina, "Let's shock the world." The Cards did just that.

"I remember having some meetings with the different leaders of the different groups and going, 'Hold on a sec here, guys,' " Warner said. " 'I know we're in the playoffs. But that's not why I'm here. I'm not here just to get into the playoffs. We've got to change the direction of what's going on.' Because I really felt the mindset was, 'Oh, we've accomplished something we'd never accomplished before. This is great. We're all happy.'

"I believe those four games were kind of a wake-up call to go, guys, we're going to the playoffs and these more playoff teams just destroyed us what you know, what are we going to do?"

That came right after that miserable journey to New England, a trip that was awful beyond just the confines of the game itself. It led to a hard week of practice, of self-reflection, of Collinsworth's words. The entire 2008 season ended up unlikely in so many ways for the Arizona Cardinals, and for as bad as the Patriots game might have been, it also may have been necessary.

"We chose to take the moment and convince ourselves that we were better than that," said Rod Graves, the general manager at the time. "And our team responded."

The Cardinals landed in Providence, and it couldn't have looked any more like Christmas time.

Snow blanketed the ground that Friday evening, and as the buses headed for the team hotel, the city was awash in festive lights. The scene was straight out of a holiday movie – except the Cards weren't there for Christmas. They were there for a football game.

The team hadn't played well on East coast road trips all season. They had been struggling. The Patriots were Tom Brady-less – Matt Cassell had taken over at quarterback since Week 1 after Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury – but still a very good team fighting for a playoff spot. The Cardinals, with one of the poorer run games in the league but three eventual 1,000-yard receivers and Warner at QB, weren't exactly built for bad weather.

"It was like, 'We're supposed to play in this?' " linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "Well, it's not like they're going to cancel the game."

When the snow pounded the team's walkthrough on Saturday, and the forecast called for more of the same on game day, it was a harbinger.

"Guys saw the snow on the ground, and we were beat right there," defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "We were beat before we ever got off the plane. Guys did not want any part of that snow.

"We waited a long time to get into the playoffs. We were finally there. And I don't think we were quite ready to handle success at that point."

The game itself got sideways quickly. The Patriots moved the ball at will – "It was like they were moving 10 times faster," Dansby said – and the Cards could do nothing.

It was also the first time for some of the young Cardinals facing the Bill Belichick-coached team. Defensive tackle Gabe Watson said they used his wife's name in some of the line calls, a trick that got him to flinch just enough as the ball was snapped. Berry ended up with frostbite on one of his fingers, which prevents feeling in the digit to this day.

The coaches had tried to get the players in the right headspace, to no avail. Linebackers coach Bill Davis, who had coached in Green Bay, tried to explain to his guys that you can't think about the elements. The Packers, he said, would win games before they kicked off because opponents often couldn't avoid it creeping into their heads.

Neither could the Cardinals.

"The worst feeling is when I look back over those heating units that blow out and your whole group is over there constantly," Davis said.

The snow stopped after halftime, but the rout did not. Warner was taken out as the game got out of hand. He wasn't the only one. If backup Matt Leinart hadn't found Larry Fitzgerald for a 78-yard touchdown late, the Cards would've been shut out. Instead, it was an ugly 47-7 final.

The bad day only got worse.

Five hours and 15 minutes after the Cardinals left Gillette Stadium, their plane finally took off for Phoenix.

The weather was an issue, with the need to de-ice the plane among other things. Because the team flew in and out of Providence – with shorter runways and a plane full of football equipment that was even heavier than normal because it had been in the snow and wet all day – there wasn't enough fuel to get all the way home. That meant a stop for gas in Minneapolis.

"It was definitely the definition of adding insult to injury," senior vice president of media relations Mark Dalton said. "To have a tough afternoon in Foxborough, followed by a long evening/morning back to Phoenix."

Some knew the plane would eventually land for fuel. Others did not. Center Lyle Sendlein was sleeping soundly in the back of the plane, through the landing in Minnesota, and probably could have stayed asleep through the process. But after the team landed, the back door was opened to get some supplies in and out – as well as a whoosh of sub-zero arctic air. Sendlein let out an expletive, wondering what was happening.

Video assistant Jeff Gonzalez was also on the plane sleeping and thought the team had gotten back to Arizona.

"We didn't get back to the (Cardinals) facility till 5 o'clock in the morning," Gonzalez said. "And then we had to prep everything. Some coaches didn't even go home. I remember them staying in the office to get ready. They started prepping for the next week, which was leading up to the Seattle game. So it was just a long weekend."

The Cardinals officially touched down in Arizona at 4:16 a.m. Arizona time. The Patriots game had kicked off at 11 a.m. Arizona time, and everyone had been at the stadium at least two hours before that.

"It just seemed like the trip that wouldn't end," Berry said. "It just seemed like it was just a never-ending nightmare, like we just couldn't wake up."

The wake-up call came, however. If it wasn't the disaster in New England, it was the few days after.

First came the comment heard around the world – or at least the Cardinals' world – courtesy of Collinsworth, the former NFL receiver who was an analyst on the weekly show "Inside the NFL."

He was asked, two days after the Patriots-Cardinals game, about the Patriots' ability to win in their finale.

"New England looked great, considering they were playing the University of Arizona out there," Collinsworth quipped. "Really, I mean that as no disrespect to the University of Arizona.

"In the history of the NFL, has there been a worse playoff team than what Arizona looks like coming in?"

The words stung, although as Davis said, "I don't remember disagreeing with him too much."

It had been a wretched stretch run. Sandwiched around the division-clinching win over the Rams, the Cardinals had lost to the Giants, Eagles, Vikings, and Patriots by a combined score of 167-80.

That didn't matter to the Cardinals, who felt the weight of Collinsworth's words.

Berry said there were a few times he felt disrespected in his career. One was when he signed with the Cardinals in 2004 and brought out his Pee-Wee football jersey because he had happened to play for the "Cardinals" as a youth. He won a championship as a kid, and told the media he planned to get to a Super Bowl with the real Cardinals as well – and the room laughed.

"And I took that personally," Berry said, and the Collinsworth comment was no different. "There was a lot of 'Just watch.' It was something that we really needed, because at the time had things just kind of played themselves out. I don't know if we would have had the fire to make the run that we did.

"We needed something to galvanize the team and appreciated Cris for giving us that that soundbite because we took it and we ran with it. We ran all the way to Tampa."

Words alone don't change the equation. The second part of the shift came on Wednesday – Christmas Eve, in the cold and the rain, the first day of practice that week as the Cardinals prepared for their regular-season finale against the Seahawks.

"What we were doing wasn't working," Davis said. "So we had to come outside of that box."

Whisenhunt put the team in full pads, rare for that late in the season but a necessary step in emphasizing the importance of the moment. He let the players know that whoever wasn't prepared to figure out their games wouldn't be playing in the postseason.

That message, along with the cajoling of Warner about the magnitude of the moment, was heard.

"Had it been up to (Whisenhunt), we'd still be out there practicing right now," Berry said.

The players wanted a change as much as the coaches, Davis said, a group of men desperate to save what had been a good season but that now was slipping away.

"I think it was a smart coaching move," longtime Arizona Republic beat writer Kent Somers said. "I mean, obviously looking back on it, I think it did some good at the time. I think a veteran like Kurt Warner was able to say, 'Look, see, I told you. Are you listening to me now?' "

A few days later, the Cardinals took care of the Seahawks, clinching a winning record on the season by beating Seattle, 34-21.

"(Whisenhunt) had his reasons," Dansby said. "He wanted to see if we was tough enough. Was we mentally tough enough to fight through adversity? Because there was some serious adversity.

"But we got through it as a team. And it made us stronger. It made us better."

From there, the Cardinals made their history, gaining confidence every step, looking nothing like the team that played that day in New England.

There was a little luck involved. They opened at home against a Falcons team that was two games better in the standings, because the Cardinals won their division. They beat the Falcons, 30-24, to kick off their postseason ride.

But it wasn't luck that helped them clobber the No. 2 seed Panthers in Carolina, 33-13, forcing six turnovers. It wasn't luck that they got revenge for their Thanksgiving night beatdown by the Eagles, showing they were the better team in a 32-25 NFC Championship victory.

It wasn't luck that the Cardinals had the best receiver in the game at the time, Fitzgerald, having arguably the best postseason of any player ever.

"We had to go through that adversity in order to get to the Super Bowl," Dansby said. "It wasn't no way around it. We had to lock in. We did that. Coach pushed us to the max. We put it all together as a team. And that's something we were searching for for the longest."

The storybook season didn't end with a storybook finish. The Cardinals took a lead in Super Bowl XLIII against the Steelers – the Patriots finished the season 11-5, but ironically, did not qualify for the playoffs themselves – with 2:37 remaining, only to lose, 27-23.

But to have gotten that far seemed improbable. The Cardinals, for a moment, were closer to Collinsworth's dig of the worst than the best in the NFC. Out of the cold and despair, however, came the lessons to be learned.

"You can definitely make that argument that if that game doesn't happen, it changes their course," Somers said.

For the day in the snow – and what came immediately after – to become a week in Tampa's sun with a chance to play for a Lombardi Trophy will forever be part of Cardinals' lore.

"There are always times throughout seasons, there's moments or games that make you stop and reflect on, 'OK, where are we at now, as a team, and where do we need to go? What are we trying to accomplish?' " Warner said. "Without a doubt, that run of games and that New England game was a real eye opener on where we were and what we needed to become."

Images around the Cardinals ' 2008 trip to New England -- a brutal, snowy loss -- that helped them go on a winning streak all the way to the Super Bowl.

back to top