Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie struts into the end zone for his game-clinching interception return Sunday in a 30-20 victory over New Orleans.
So Sunday went just how the Cardinals drew it up.
They took a rookie quarterback and the much-maligned defense against the Super Bowl champions. They gained yards – and a touchdown – on fumbles picked up by offensive linemen. They played a little field-goal defense, in a way, when the opposing kicker missed a 29-yard field goal, and turned a quarterback completing almost 75 percent of his passes into a turnover machine.
When it was over at University of Phoenix Stadium and the Cards owned the improbable 30-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints, the smiles came quickly for a team that needed such a game in the wake of the last three they had played.
"That was big," guard Alan Faneca said, "to prove to ourselves that's how we play football."
Max Hall took over at quarterback and wasn't spectacular – 17-of-27 for 168 yards and an interception, with four sacks – but he did enough. And that's because the defense did more, picking off Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times and forcing a fumble by running back Ladell Betts.
Each came at crucial points, with a 27-yard return for a touchdown by safety Kerry Rhodes giving the Cards a 10-point leads with 10:39 left and a belief an upset was in the offing. Then, after the Saints had cut it to three points with only 24 seconds left, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie came up with the exclamation point by picking the ball off at the New Orleans 28, eschewing a chance to down the ball and running it in for a touchdown.
"First of all I was thinking about how they did us last year and ran up the score (in a 45-14 playoff loss)," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "When I got my hands on the ball, I was thinking touchdown the whole time. I wasn't thinking no knee."
It was hard to blame him after the twists and turns Sunday. It got off to a bad start when Hall threw an interception on his second pass – ruining the field position created by a 60-yard kickoff return by LaRod Stephens-Howling to start the game – although the defense held the Saints (3-2) to a field goal.
From there, it felt like every break went the Cards' way. New Orleans did build a 10-0 lead but Stephens-Howling came up with another big return (48 yards) to set up a field goal. The Cards later tied it when – after a Ben Graham punt pinned the Saints at their own 1 – linebacker Paris Lenon intercepted a tipped screen pass to set up the Cards at the New Orleans 2.
It shouldn't have been a touchdown when Hall, trying to run the ball in on third down, was crushed by three Saints near the goal line and fumbled the ball. Disaster, until tackle Levi Brown scooped it up and fell into the end zone for a touchdown.
The Rhodes score came two plays after the Cards took their first lead on Jay Feely's third field goal, and that came after the Saints' John Carney pulled a 29-yard field goal wide left.
"We have had enough of those things go against us," coach Ken Whisenhunt said, "that in the cosmic scheme of things they balance out. It was nice to see that happen.
"The touchdown run we designed for Levi worked just the way we had it planned."
Those were the quips that come from a winning locker room, a team that suddenly flows with optimism thanks to Sunday's tangible proof.
It wasn't all smooth. The Cardinals tried to run the ball with Beanie Wells, although he gained just 35 yards on a career-high 20 carries. But Hall got the ball to wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald seven times (for a season-high 93 yards) and the Cards seemed to make most of the plays when needed.
There is a belief in Hall that is easy to see.
"I had three turnovers and we were very fortunate," Hall said, referencing the two fumbles the Cards kept. "I need to fix my mistakes. But I think those guys trust me, and I think when they look at me, they know we have a chance to win."
That will continue if the defense plays like Sunday, too.
"We just want to come out and put together an effort we could be proud of," Rhodes said.
That's all the Cardinals (3-2) wanted. They are alone in first place in the division, a half-game ahead of the idle Seattle Seahawks, with their own bye coming up. It's a chance to get healthy, to get Hall prepped for his first road start (in Seattle) and a chance to let the rest of the division see the Cards haven't faded away.
"We got to the bye on a positive note and from here we have to keep climbing the ladder," linebacker Clark Haggans said. "I know we made mistakes. But this is was good icebreaker to keep going up and up and keep climbing this mountain this season."
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