GLENDALE, Ariz. – As the Arizona Cardinals bathed in a blizzard of confetti Sunday afternoon, safety Adrian Wilson bounced from teammate to teammate, grabbing their arms and preaching a message for all to hear.
"We changed our stripes!" Wilson shouted to anyone and everyone, celebrating Arizona's 32-25 NFC championship win over the Philadelphia Eagles at University of Phoenix Stadium. "The Cardinals have changed their stripes!"
More than an hour later, when the locker room was empty, that thought was still on lips – still being exchanged in quiet laughter as players battled to straighten neckties and count the bountiful text messages on their cell phones. Linebacker Chike Okeafor was doing just that when he caught defensive end Antonio Smith out of the corner of his eye.
"We're bona fide, man," Okeafor said. "None of this 'They can't do this and they can't do that …' "
Smith shook his head and interrupted the thought.
"Two weeks," he said. "If we don't seal the deal in two weeks, we'll never be bona fide."
This was a small window into the soul of a team that by all accounts should never had made it this far. Lest we forget, the Cardinals began training camp with a quarterback competition and finished the season getting blown out in three of their final five games. In between, they endured the still-unfinished contract drama of Anquan Boldin, the awkward benching of starting running back Edgerrin James, and an almost universal belief that this nine-win team was the biggest fraud in these playoffs.
"Look around," Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said with those thoughts in mind. "All these guys in here are battle-tested. That's what it's all about. A lot of us have been through a lot in the last two seasons. But that's OK, because that's exactly why we're in this position."
It's certainly a flattering posture. In only two seasons, head coach Ken Whisenhunt took a franchise that had a downtrodden and often backward mentality, and turned out a team that suddenly looks as mentally tough as it is talented. In that transformation, Whisenhunt delivered – arguably ahead of schedule – the Cardinals' first NFC title appearance and win, and in two weeks, its first Super Bowl, too.
And it has been every bit as legitimate as it could be. Indeed, the Cardinals showed backbone in the opening-round win over the better-than-advertised Atlanta Falcons. But it has been the last two weeks that have unveiled the franchise as a legitimate threat to win its first league championship since 1947 (when it was based in Chicago). Not just for pounding the favored Carolina Panthers last week or edging Philadelphia on Sunday, but for the fashion in which the Cardinals achieved both wins.
Arizona dominated the Panthers defensively and overran Carolina on offense, showing an ability to finish that is typically showcased by only the best teams. But they added another dimension against the Eagles, showing the will to respond late in the fourth quarter, despite trailing with the game on the line. While Sunday's win will be recalled for wideout Larry Fitzgerald's continued dominance – he broke Jerry Rice's NFL record for postseason receiving yards (he has 419 to Rice's 409) – it should be remembered for Arizona's maturation.
In the first half, the Cardinals showcased almost perfect offensive play-calling, incorporating 17 passes and 12 runs, using short drops and the shotgun to give quarterback Kurt Warner additional time to identify the pressure coming from Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. In the game's final three minutes, Arizona's defense repeatedly brought its own blitz against Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, stifling Philadelphia's penultimate drive at midfield.
As Okeafor would have put it, the biggest step in franchise history came on the heels of bona-fide balance.
"To come back here when everybody counted us out," Warner said, "when everybody counted me out, when everybody told us every single week, 'Well, the Cardinals don't have a chance against Atlanta; they definitely don't have a chance against Carolina; and they really don't have a chance against Philadelphia,' and then you accomplish that, it's really, really special."
Now the Cardinals will turn their attention toward Pittsburgh, a matchup that Whisenhunt – a former Steelers offensive coordinator – said he "absolutely" wished for. But it seems certain to come with another measure of doubt in these Cardinals, who remain defiant when it comes to the expectations of the outside world.
"I'm pretty sure Carolina wanted us to lose today and I'm pretty sure Philly is gonna want us to lose [in the Super Bowl]," Cardinals defensive defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "That's cool. We've got our trophy and now we're going for the world trophy. … I looked at Anquan [Boldin] today and said, 'Man, we've got us a national title ring [from Florida State], we've got a conference championship ring from college and now we've got a chance to get a Super Bowl ring. This is our opportunity to go ahead and flood those fingers up like [Michael] Jordan."
To capture that ring would be to beat the team that passed on Whisenhunt and Arizona offensive line coach Russ Grimm. It would be to solve the NFL's No. 1 defense – a group that is the battle-tested foil to Arizona's vaunted offense. But more than anything, it would be to prove that the nine-win regular season was merely an aberration of growth, and that the 47-7 blowout loss at the hands of the New England Patriots last month wasn't an example of the AFC dwarfing the NFC as the league's powerhouse conference. But most of all, beating Pittsburgh would represent the pinnacle of the journey for a franchise, a fallen quarterback, a benched running back, and an entire roster that has lived under a cloud of doubt for as long as anyone could remember.
As Dansby put it Sunday, "We're trying to put our name in stone. It's in front of the world, man."
- Karlos Dansby
- Ken Whisenhunt