The deafening crowd had not let up at all when Fox’s Terry Bradshaw finally turned to Kurt Warner on the podium, the celebration of an NFC Championship just beginning.
“When nobody else believed in us, when nobody else believed in me, you guys did,” the quarterback said, bellowing to not only a worldwide TV audience but specifically to the 70,650 fans tucked inside State Farm Stadium. “And we're going to the Super Bowl!”
A decade has passed since that day. The Cardinals are in a different place, four coaches and a boatload of quarterbacks removed from the electrifying, emotional 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Jan. 18, 2009, propelling the Cards to an improbable Super Bowl appearance.
“We caught lighting at the right time,” linebacker Bertrand Berry said. “There we were, with the confetti coming down, with an all-expenses-paid trip to Tampa.”
The Cardinals started that season – the second under coach Ken Whisenhunt – with a 7-3 record and clinched the NFC West title with three games left in the season. But two blowout losses from there, including the infamous 47-7 shellacking in New England in Week 16, helped propel the idea that the Cardinals didn’t deserve to play at home in the playoffs and that they were possibly the worst playoff team ever.
“There were times I thought that could possibly be true,” Warner acknowledged. “But what was cool was when we actually got (to the playoffs), you saw guys elevate their game.”
The 9-7 Cardinals beat the 10-6 Falcons at home in the Wild Card game. They destroyed the Panthers (and quarterback Jake Delhomme’s career) in Carolina during the divisional round on a Saturday night, reaching the NFC title game.
“Our team was very much maligned, and people weren’t quite sure what we were,” Berry said. “Clinched the division so early, we had seven losses, some thought we were the worst playoff team in the history of the league, we shouldn’t have home-field advantage, they can’t win on the East Coast, blah, blah, blah. For us, we just wanted to prove a lot of people wrong and shut a lot of people up.
“We weren’t deaf to that stuff. We heard what a lot of people were saying.”
That the Cardinals were playing at home was improbable in itself. As the fourth seed in the NFC, there had only been one chance to host an NFC Championship game, if the sixth-seeded Eagles managed to win two games.
But then the previous Sunday morning – after the Cardinals had returned to Arizona in the wee hours after their Carolina upset – the Eagles went to New York to play the top-seeded Giants and pulled off an upset of their own.
“We were glad to see them beat New York because we really didn’t want to play in the cold weather,” linebacker Karlos Dansby said.
Berry said he was rooting for the Eagles, and not just because of the home game. The Cardinals had gone to Philadelphia that season on Thanksgiving night, and were crushed, 48-20. As the Cards had done the week before against the Panthers in avenging a regular-season loss, the rematch with the Eagles allowed another notch in a postseason revenge tour.
“(Expletive) went into overdrive,” safety Adrian Wilson said. “The preparation … we were over-studying, over-communicating, everything went into a different atmosphere of ‘we are going to crush this team physically.’
“Offensively, those were some of the most crisp practices. We were throwing blitzes at them that weren’t scout team, some of our star players on defense were on scout team, that’s how honed in we were. It was a phenomenal week.”
The Cardinals looked like it when they took the field. They took the opening possession 80 yards for a touchdown, Warner to Larry Fitzgerald. The Eagles countered with a field goal, but Warner found Fitzgerald for a 62-yard touchdown bomb on a flea flicker. After another Philly field goal, it was Warner to Fitz for a third touchdown, as Fitzgerald continued what was the greatest postseason by a receiver ever.
When Neil Rackers booted a field goal right before halftime, the Cardinals owned a 24-6 lead at the break.
“We felt we had that game in check,” Berry said. “I felt like Larry was going to be enshrined in Canton based on that first half alone.”
But the game ended up mirroring the regular season, in which the Cardinals started fast, slumped and had to rally.
The Eagles suddenly started scoring points. The Cardinals’ offense did nothing in the third quarter, running only eight plays with no first downs. Early in the fourth quarter, Donovan McNabb hit DeSean Jackson for a 62-yard TD pass to cap an 86-yard drive, and unbelievably, the Cardinals found themselves trailing, 25-24.
“I don’t want to sound like it wasn’t what it was, which at the time was the biggest game in Cardinals history, but we had been in that situation before,” said wide receiver Steve Breaston, referring to the need to get a game-clinching first-down late in the Wild Card win over Atlanta. “We were like, ‘We got the ball last, we’ll go down and score.’ There was no worry.”
Maybe not on the field. On the sideline, the tension level had grown.
“That was probably the first time I stood up, in six or seven years, to watch the offense,” Wilson said. “I don’t think I had ever stood up to watch a drive. We had confidence in our offense against their defense because we had been doing it all year, but once you get to that crucial part in the game where maybe each team gets one possession each and we had to go down and get a score, you don’t know.
“All of us were sitting there like a deer in the headlights. It was very nerve-wracking to sit there having to watch it.”
There was 10:39 left on the clock when the Cardinals took over at their own 28. The first key play came quickly, from Fitz. Facing a second-and-11, Warner hit Fitzgerald for a 15-yard gain to spark the drive. Big play No. 2 came with 7:57 left. The Cardinals had a fourth-and-inches at the Philadelphia 49. Running back Tim Hightower veered wide right, seemingly taking forever to turn the corner before finally bursting upfield for six yards.
The final giant play came on third-and-goal at the 8. Warner pulled off the perfect screen pass to Hightower, who churned and spun his way into the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Warner passed to tight end Ben Patrick for the two-point conversion and a seven-point lead.
“I had numerous conversations with some of our leaders (before the postseason) and I’m like, ‘OK, I don’t want to go to the playoffs just to go to the playoffs. I know it’s different for here, but you don’t get these opportunities often. I want to do something special.’ ” Warner said.
The Cardinals were less than three minutes from doing just that.
Berry said the defense knew there was still a stop needed. The Eagles got as far as the Arizona 47 before four straight McNabb incompletions turned the ball over. The Cardinals all but ran out the clock before punting, with defensive tackle Darnell Dockett getting an odd fumble recovery when Philly tried to lateral their way to a miracle as time ran out.
The confetti fell. Tears were shed. Smiles were everywhere, and Warner made his emotional speech.
“That team grew up together, and in that year we grew up quite a bit, and I look at it with absolute fond memories,” Berry said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Yeah, I would’ve liked to come out on top (in the Super Bowl), but the experience we were able to have, seeing grown people crying in the stands, to be able to give Mr. (Bill) Bidwill the opportunity to raise that trophy, he didn’t know what to do with it. He was kind of holding it, and I said, ‘Mr. B, you’ve got to hold it up to the crowd.’ The crowd went nuts and we went nuts behind him. That’s the big memory I have, to give him that chance to exhale a little bit and know his organization had finally gotten to the biggest game.”
Images from the week of the Cardinals' 2008 NFC Championship game victory over the Eagles which sent them to the Super Bowl