Forget about the Arizona Cardinals you watched in December. Forget about the Cardinals teams that you haven't watched for the last 60 years because they never made national television. None of that prologue matters. In today's NFL, the only thing that counts is now. And no one is playing better playoff football than the Cardinals.
Football fans are somehow uncomfortable with these Cardinals. They have given up more points than any Super Bowl team in history. They finished dead last in rushing yards. (To be fair, Pittsburgh was 29th in yards-per-carry.) Arizona is making a mockery of the long-held belief that December football matters. They don't even have a convenient kick-start moment to point to, like the Giants-Patriots battle from Week 17 last year.
Ask the Cardinals when their season turned around, and they usually point to the 47-7 loss in Foxborough during the penultimate game of the regular season. Huddling around space heaters in the snow has never proven so beneficial.
The Patriots loss brings up a defining trait of these Cards: They are at their best when things look the worst.
Back in Week 6, the Cardinals were 3-2 and facing everyone's Super Bowl favorites, the Cowboys. They had a chance for their biggest home win in years, but coughed up a 10-point lead in the final three minutes. That's when most Cardinals seasons would collapse. But in overtime, they forced a three-and-out on defense, and then blocked a punt to win the game.
"That's the biggest difference between this team and the Cardinals teams of the past. In the past, we'd have a lead and for some reason you'd blow it or there was something you didn't do right. ... Now we're finding ways to win," Edgerrin James said Thursday.
The pattern played out later in the season. They clinched their first division title since 1975, and thought they accomplished something.
"Our biggest goal when we got here to win the West. And we won the West in November," acclaimed strength coach John Lott said. "It was like their was an exhale. ... After the New England game, we woke up."
"We got a little comfortable," Brian St. Pierre, the Arizona quarterback you don't know, commented. "That's dangerous in this business. You have to play with a chip on your shoulder."
Many of the players point towards Whisenhunt's practices the week after the Patriots loss as the time when the chip returned. They put the pads back on and started practicing like they were in high school again.
"Everyone's got a plan until they get hit in the mouth," Lott continued. "We had to get our lanterns out because we were in tunnels we had never seen before. ... This a team that responds to challenges. They liked being pushed. Not all teams do that. Some teams get that brook trout look and never recover."
The Cardinals team that emerged in the playoffs looked unlike the one we saw most of the year. In some ways, their turnaround is inexplicable. In other ways, it's just football. We never know anything.
The team's opportunistic defense, which was fifth in the NFL in turnovers, started to force big plays with regularity. They have eleven takeaways in three games and are 11-0 this season when they win the turnover battle. I believe they can win it again Sunday and thus win the game.
How the Cardinals can win
There are plenty of X's and O's reasons why the Cardinals can win, many of which I detailed last week. Arizona's mad scientist, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, is going to cook up looks that will give Pittsburgh's offensive line problems. They can force mistakes and contain what has been a below-average Pittsburgh offense, giving the Arizona passing game a chance to win the game.
Larry Fitzgerald is a force of nature, and will require a ridiculous amount of attention, which should free up a motivated and healthy Anquan Boldin. If you are going to beat the Steelers, you need to throw the ball like crazy and handle their blitzes. Don't expect the Cardinals to even bother maintaining offensive balance because it won't work against defensive tackle Casey Hampton and crew. The game will be on Kurt Warner's neck because he needs to decipher Pittsburgh's blitz schemes so he can get rid of the ball quickly. Look for the Cardinals to spread Pittsburgh out and throw a lot of short passes. If you are looking for a sleeper MVP pick, Boldin is it.
The Steelers running game isn't built to pull away with a big lead. This is an offense that ranked 20th in points despite all the amazing field position their defense gave them. Expect a close game.
The Cardinals are no longer the same 9-7 team that finished the regular season. They are the team that closed out a favored Falcons squad with a gutsy third-down call. They ruined Carolina's undefeated home season with a 20-point spanking. A red-hot Eagles unit tied a record for the greatest comeback in NFC Championship game history, then the Cardinals responded with a long march down the field.
In each game, Arizona trailed and found a way to win. Their play can look uneven by the quarter, but they right themselves before the finish line. No matter what happens Sunday, they are not going to shrink when pushed.
"We like the flair for the dramatic," St. Pierre said.
This Cardinals team is full of players who have seen the depths of the NFL, and now stand only one game away from its peak. They are a decidedly veteran group: only two starters are in their first three years. More than half of their starters have been with the franchise for at least four seasons, including eight defenders.
They should be happy to be here, but instead have a quietly intense focus about finishing the job. Safety Adrian Wilson turned his phone off an hour after the NFC Championship and hasn't turned it on since.
Add it all up, and perhaps Arizona still isn't the logical choice. But football is our most emotional team game, and the logic learned from the last five months is irrelevant now. The pain of Cardinals fans over the last 60 years has nothing to do with what happens Sunday. The Cardinals and Steelers are playing equally good playoff football, but the Buzzsaw will find that little extra magic when things look their worst on Sunday.
Cardinals 20, Steelers 17.
- Gregg Rosenthal, NBCSports.com