GLENDALE, Ariz. – Five minutes into Sunday night's showdown between NFC contenders on the road to repeating as division champions, the Arizona Cardinals were in trouble.
The formidable Minnesota Vikings had already forced a fumble and taken a seven-point lead on a Brett Favre(notes) touchdown pass, and the 64,121 fans at University of Phoenix Stadium braced themselves for a replay of the Vikes' blowout victory here a year ago. Having missed the previous game while recovering from a concussion, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner(notes) seemed a vulnerable target for All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen(notes) and the rest of Minnesota's physical defense.
And then, with an inimitable mixture of blunt force and sublime skill, Anquan Boldin(notes) put the Cards on his back and carried them to their most impressive victory since last January's NFC championship game.
After that historic triumph, which put Arizona in its first Super Bowl, Boldin threw a bizarrely timed tantrum over his lack of involvement in the offense and left the stadium as if he were auditioning for a role in "Gone in 60 Seconds."
On Sunday, following the Cardinals' 30-17 thumping of the Vikings, a far happier Boldin stuck around to talk about the message he and his team had just sent to the rest of the league: While most people have been fixated on the undefeated New Orleans Saints and the Vikings, who'd lost just once before Sunday, as the teams to beat in the NFC, the defending conference champs remain a force to be reckoned with as the stretch run commences.
"I definitely wanted to set a tone," Boldin said. "When one of us starts out big like that, it puts pressure on a defense and opens it up for everybody, and people feed off each other."
Fitzgerald, 26, is in the second year of a four-year, $40 million contract befitting of his status as perhaps the NFL's best receiver.
Boldin, meanwhile, is in the third year of a four-year extension – reportedly worth just below $16 million – he signed in July 2005. By NFL standards, he is vastly underpaid, and he's not happy about it. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Boldin, 29, has been disgruntled with his deal for more than a year, to the point where he has tried to force a trade on more than one occasion.
Unable to convince the Cardinals to meet his price, Boldin has retaliated by making opponents pay.
On Sunday, he provided a persuasive presentation as to why he's so valuable to the Cards – and why, though it might defy conventional football wisdom, the franchise should step up and offer him a significant bump in pay.
I'll start with the simplest and most compelling argument for devoting that much salary-cap space to one position: Having two game-changers at wideout, and a savvy, supremely accurate quarterback who can get them the ball, is what elevates the Cardinals' offense from explosive to exquisite.
"It makes us pretty special, doesn't it?" Warner asked rhetorically after NFC West-leading Arizona (8-4) moved to within two games of NFC North-leading Minnesota (10-2) in the race for a first-round bye. "Those two guys feed off each other, make each other better and help us set a tone in games like this."
On Sunday, while Fitzgerald was still waiting for a table at the restaurant, it was the ravenous Boldin who took the first bite. After the Vikings went up 7-0, he caught three passes on Arizona's next drive, which ended with a punt. Then, after No. 3 wideout Steve Breaston(notes) returned a Chris Kluwe(notes) punt to Minnesota's 2-yard line, Boldin slipped out of the backfield and caught a quick throw from Warner for a game-tying touchdown.
Boldin made two more catches on the Cardinals' next series, converting third downs on each occasion. And with 7:51 remaining in the first half, Boldin put Arizona ahead for good on a masterful 39-yard touchdown reception that's hard to do justice with words.
Shadowed tightly down the left sideline by Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin(notes), Boldin turned his head at the precise moment and reached up with his right hand to snatch Warner's willowy throw to his back shoulder. After catching the pass at the Minnesota 25, Boldin rambled ahead and dodged several defenders en route to the end zone.
"I know it might look weird," Warner said, "but to us, that play is 'open.' "
Said Boldin: "It's so big to have a guy like Kurt that trusts you that much. It's almost like an unspoken language. It's incredible; I see what he sees. Sometimes we'll be watching film and I'll think, 'I can't believe he threw that.' Before we're even out of our breaks, he throws the ball. That's the kind of trust of he has. And believe me, it's the product of a lot of repetition and work in practice – a lot of things you don't see."
By game's end the Vikings' defensive backs felt as though they were seeing double. At halftime Boldin had seven catches for 98 yards and the Cardinals led 21-10. Though "Q" didn't add to that total in the second half, he did throw a hellacious block that helped spring Fitzgerald (eight catches, 143 yards, one touchdown) on a seven-yard swing pass inside the red zone with four minutes left in the third quarter, setting up the second of Neil Rackers'(notes) three field goals.
"Q gets everything jump-started," Fitzgerald said afterward. "Everybody feeds off his intensity. It's like a pool that bubbles over, and guys get a cup and drink the libation.
"To me, he's a warrior, and he makes everybody better. I want to play the rest of my career with a guy like that."
Translation: Pay the man. It's a message Warner, before and after re-signing with the team following his terrific '08 campaign, wasn't shy about sharing with management. The team's defensive leader, Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson(notes), eagerly enunciated those same sentiments on Sunday.
Absolutely – without the physical, passionate Boldin, the Cards would lose some of their aggressive identity. I also know, however, that the Cardinals' owners, the Bidwills, are notoriously cheap; and that Boldin, for all his willingness to play through pain, could be classified as injury-prone and is pushing 30.
The conventional move would be to let Boldin play out his current deal and leave via free agency, slide Breaston into the No. 2 role and invest the money the team saved in a key player (or players) at other positions.
It doesn't take a psychic to see that this is probably where the situation is headed, possibly without the investing-in-other-players component.
– Cards safety Adrian Wilson on teammate Anquan Boldin
"They won't pay him," predicted defensive tackle Darnell Dockett(notes), another standout who has unsuccessfully lobbied for a new deal. "He'll have to go somewhere else to get it. But one way or the other, he'll get what he deserves."
I suspect that Dockett is right, but I'd like to see the team take a shot at keeping Boldin in Arizona. If the Cards came at him with an upgraded deal that, while not in Fitzgerald's financial neighborhood, put him closer in line with most of the league's other top wideouts, perhaps he'd surprise them and stay put.
Boldin, for all his frustration during the past 15 months, has never let it get in the way of business once he suits up. He goes hard, plays through injuries and puts his body on the line for the cause as willingly as any NFL wideout.
His post NFC championship game hissy fit seems to have been an anomaly, and at least he had the good sense not to compound the spectacle by making inflammatory comments.
"It's not one of those things you harp on," he said Sunday night. "I don't live in the past. You can't change it; the only thing you can do is learn from it. I live in the moment."
In the moment, Boldin is helping the Cardinals close in on a second consecutive NFC West title – they can clinch with a victory over the 49ers (5-7) in San Francisco next Monday night – and try to become the first team of this decade to defy the Curse of the Super Bowl Loser and go deep into the playoffs the following year.
What will happen after that, he can't predict.
"I don't know," he said. "The things I can't control, I don't worry about. It's out of my hands."
The footballs Warner's throwing his way? Those are very much in his hands, as the Vikings found out on Sunday.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• If the Saints close out a perfect regular season, then sweep three playoff games to become the first team to finish 19-0, the 1972 Dolphins and coach Don Shula will surely go to their graves cursing Shaun Suisham(notes). The Redskins' kicker could have given his team a 10-point lead over New Orleans (12-0) with 1:52 to play in Sunday's game at FedEx Field, but he shanked a 23-yard field goal – atrocious, and so typical for the '09 Skins. Given that opening, the Saints forced overtime when wideout Robert Meachem(notes) got behind the Washington defense and caught a 53-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees(notes), ultimately prevailing 33-30 with the help of a key replay reversal. It took all of that to keep the Saints perfect – and one of the craziest plays of the season. In the final stages of the second quarter, Brees was pressured on third-and-26 and heaved a ball into the secondary that the 'Skins' Kareem Moore(notes) turned into a diving interception. He got up and started running, and Meachem swooped in and in one motion dislodged the ball from Moore, caught it on the fly and took off down the sideline on a 44-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 17. When I saw it unfold on television while watching multiple games at a restaurant near University of the Phoenix Stadium, I simply wrote down "Robert Meachem!!!!" in my notebook. Meachem, a first-round draft pick in '07, was regarded as a washout until this year. Now he may go down as a man who helped the Saints make history. "That was the play of the year for us," said safety Darren Sharper(notes) (via text), who has made a few great ones of his own. "He's having a breakout season. It was a true football play."
• One of the more entertaining exchanges of the past offseason occurred in June, when New York Jets coach Rex Ryan and Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder(notes) made like Nas and Jay-Z. Six months later, I guarantee Ryan is loving Crowder – or, at least, he was on Sunday, when Crowder made his first career interception, picking off a Tom Brady(notes) pass with 35 seconds remaining to clinch a 22-21 victory over the New England Patriots. Suddenly, what looked like a runaway romp in the AFC for the Pats (7-5) has turned into an intriguing, three-team race involving the Dolphins (6-6) and Jets (6-6). And all those people who rationalized Bill Belichick's controversial fourth-down call against Indy three weeks ago as that of a man with the luxury of cruising to a playoff spot might have to re-think that line of reasoning very soon. On a positive note for New England, the remaining schedule is far from daunting (Carolina, at Buffalo, Jacksonville, at Houston). But the Pats are just 1-5 on the road this year, and that one victory occurred in a neutral-site game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London. Either the Pats lack the focus required to put away the inferior teams chasing them, or they're simply not as superior as we believed.
• Hey, all you draft-obsessed fans out there, kindly do me a huge favor next April: When you start breathlessly proclaiming that the first-round selection of so-and-so will transform your favorite team, remember the Oakland Raiders' stunning 27-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field Sunday. I'll get to the free-falling defending champs later; right now I want to talk about quarterback Bruce Gradkowski(notes) and wideout Louis Murphy(notes), two dudes who generated zero buzz during the 384 consecutive hours of televised draft coverage last spring. With JaMarcus Russell(notes), the first overall pick in the '07 draft, watching from the sidelines, Gradkowski, Tampa Bay's sixth-round pick in '06, engineered his second game-winning drive in the final minutes in the last three games. And Murphy, the kid who made all the huge plays in Oakland's three-TD fourth quarter, including the winning TD catch with nine seconds remaining? He's the rookie receiver who was an afterthought on draft day, a fourth-round pick expected to provide depth behind No. 7 overall selection Darrius Heyward-Bey(notes). Though he was picked 117 spots later than the former Maryland speedster, who sat out Sunday's game with a foot injury, Murphy is clearly the better pro player. Meanwhile, coach Tom Cable has seemingly begun his second annual Fire Up The Team For Meaningless Games To Save Your Job drive. Oops, my bad, Raider Nation – sorry to bum y'all out.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• OK, now let's get to the Steelers. Four weeks ago, they went to Denver and utterly dismantled the Broncos, convincing me (and many others) that they were capable of another title run. Now? They've lost four consecutive games, are 6-6 and are showing disturbing signs of the misguided "We can turn it on when we want to" mentality that has done in so many teams – often the previous year's Super Bowl loser – in the past. So much for Mike Tomlin's promise to "unleash hell", not to mention my dreams of going all the way in the World's Simplest Pool. On second thought, I think there's a pretty fair chance he'll be unleashing hell on his players in practice Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday, Pittsburgh faces the Browns in Cleveland in a game that could render the last three (Packers, Ravens, at Dolphins) largely irrelevant if it ends in defeat. I was pretty sure the Browns had nothing to play for in '09, but I was wrong. Stomping out the Steelers' hopes of a title defense would bring so much joy to the Dawg Pound, it might even cheer Eric Mangini, at least for one night.
• I still believe the Falcons are one of the league's best-positioned franchises for the next several years, with a savvy general manager (Thomas Dimitroff), a no-frills coach (Mike Smith>) and an abundance of young talent, including a second-year franchise quarterback (Matt Ryan(notes)). Yet it looks like the Falcons' dubious streak of never having put together consecutive winning seasons will persist after Sunday's 34-7 thrashing by the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome dropped Atlanta to 6-6. One obvious explanation is that this team has been brutalized by injuries: On Sunday Ryan, halfback Michael Turner(notes) and two starting offensive linemen, including left tackle Sam Baker(notes), were sidelined. Meanwhile, the player that owner Arthur Blank once famously pushed around the field in a wheelchair came back to Atlanta and stood tall: Michael Vick(notes) ran for a touchdown, threw for another and had fans at the Dome chanting his name. I know I took a lot of heat for supporting Vick's right to return to the NFL, but that doesn't mean I wasn't tempted to throw up a little in my mouth while watching Sunday's lovefest. In honor of the sycophantic fans who apparently bear no grudge against a man whose persistent pattern of irresponsibility negatively impacted the organization, I'm going to start calling him Michael Vick-tim. Oh well – maybe things will get better next Sunday when the Falcons face their next opponent at the Dome: the Saints. Um, never mind.
• Wade Phillips was a little touchy after the Cowboys' 31-24 defeat to the Giants, which brought up the franchise's dubious December record of recent years. (Some numbers: The Cowboys haven't had a winning record in the month since 2001; they're 18-32 in games after Dec. 1 since 1996; and quarterback Tony Romo(notes) is 5-9 in December games.) When the "D" word came up in his postgame news conference, Phillips said, "We played a tough team on the road, and they ended up beating us, whatever date it is. … No, I don't think it's a mental block. I think it's something you [the media] made up." One thing I know is real: If the Cowboys miss the postseason for a second consecutive year – or, possibly, if they make the playoffs and perform poorly – owner Jerry Jones will almost certainly replace Phillips at season's end. With Dallas and the Eagles now tied atop the AFC East at 8-4 and the Giants (7-5) a game back, Phillips had best start concerning himself less with the questions he doesn't like answering and more with preparing his team as well as he possibly can. The schedule (Chargers, at Saints, at Redskins, Eagles) does the Cowboys no favors. If Big D is going to stop sucking in Big D, it will take a more focused and fierce effort than the one Phillips' team produced on Sunday.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That my daughter's U-14 soccer team, the Legends, looking flatter than Tim Tebow's haircut in the opening game of a big tournament Saturday morning and trailing 2-0 with 12 minutes to go, rallied to win 3-2 in regulation – and completed a thrilling weekend by clinching their flight on Sunday. Like many parents, I spend an unhealthy amount of time watching my kids play sports, and while I'm always interested in observing my offspring in competitive settings, often the events themselves are mundane. Sometimes, however, we get rewarded with extraordinary efforts, and this was one of them. Among other surreal sights: The Legends' keeper racing from her own goal to take a direct kick 10 yards outside the opponent's box – and bending the ball over the wall and into the top corner of the net for the game-tying goal with five minutes remaining. The courageous kid who scored the game-winner a minute later, Claire Buhlman, was knocked out of Sunday's flight-deciding victory and rushed to the hospital with a concussion and lost vision in one eye. She has since recovered and will be rooting the team on as it plays for a District Cup championship on Friday night, which also conflicts with a junior high school dance, meaning my daughter and some of her teammates will be showing up sweaty. Ah, drama. And I wouldn't want it any other way.
2. The ridiculously reckless unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Titans defensive tackle Tony Brown with eight seconds to go in the first half of Sunday's game at Indianapolis. The 15-yard infraction moved the Colts from the Tennessee 45 to the 30, setting up Matt Stover's(notes) 43-yard field goal as time expired. I realize the Titans may well have lost this game even without Brown's boneheaded move, but it certainly didn't help. Vince Young(notes) had finally brought Tennessee's offense to life with a six-yard touchdown pass to Kenny Britt(notes) with 20 seconds remaining, and the Titans could've gone into halftime with a 21-10 deficit and some momentum. Instead, Indy was able to tack on the extra three, and that came in handy after the Titans closed the deficit to 10 points and recovered an onside kick with 1:21 to go. The larger issue is that the Titans, because of their 0-6 start, have no margin for error – and self-inflicted sins such as Brown's are thus absolutely unconscionable. Had the deficit been three points less, I wonder if coach Jeff Fisher might have felt less compelled to go for it on fourth down deep in Colts territory on two separate occasions in the second half (neither attempt was converted). Oh well, we'll never know. There goes the five-game winning streak and, possibly, the season. While Tennessee could still win out to finish 9-7, making the playoffs with that record would likely require a lot of help. And, of course, the Titans will have to stop killing themselves.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
Yo, Charlie Weis: Really? Did you just become one of the most notorious player-haters in sports history, and then try to weasel your way out of it? Wow. Let me bring the rest of you up to speed: It's not like the deposed Notre Dame coach had much street cred as it was, but he surrendered any remaining shred of it in an interview Saturday with five reporters who cover the team. Asked if it was frustrating that USC coach Pete Carroll (the subject of last week's diatribe, for what it's worth) is held to a different standard of scrutiny, Weis took it upon himself to blurt out an apparent Internet rumor that Carroll lives with a grad student in Malibu, Calif. – one the Trojans coach quickly denied. I have zero journalistic interest in what might be going on in Carroll's personal life, but I will say this: If he gets into an early morning single-car accident after which his wife uses a golf club to pry him from the vehicle, he'll know who to thank. To borrow a term from '90s Bad Boy rapper Mase, Weis has accumulated significant credits toward a Ph.D – a Player Hater's Degree.
In a profession in which men go to great lengths to protect their own – a coaching-fraternity code apparent to virtually anyone who doesn't work in the Napa County District Attorney's office – Weis just put the fidelity of one of his fellow coaches up for public consumption. And I'm sorry, but his subsequent assertions to the Los Angeles Times that his comments were taken out of context and that "in no way was I trying to take a shot at Pete" are laughable. First of all, in what context should Weis' comment have been taken? Name one, Charlie, that's not the product of Haterade consumption. Secondly, and more important, think about what Weis does (or did) for a living: Coaches, particularly head coaches, are the biggest control freaks on the planet. They're obsessive about every word that is uttered publicly by anyone, and 99 percent of them (bless you, Rex Ryan, for being different) err on the side of revealing as little information as possible. Yet Weis, as an aside, happened to let it slip that there's a rumor about Carroll shacking up with a much-younger woman that illustrated how tough poor Charlie had it in South Bend? And it was a total accident, and he has nothing but love for Pete? Yeah, right.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Back in USA. The Province of Sask is just like their Grey Cup, 'Too many Men!!' "
– Email Thursday from Calgary Stampeders receiver (and former NFL tight end) Teyo Johnson(notes), goofing on the ending of the Grey Cup and, apparently, the Saskatchewan bar scene.
"Feels the same really. So happy, but really special when it's your own daughter."
– Text Sunday afternoon from former 49ers tight end Brent Jones, comparing a Super Bowl victory with watching daughter Courtney capture an NCAA soccer championship. (Courtney, a sophomore forward at North Carolina, helped the Tar Heels win a second consecutive College Cup Sunday, defeating previously undefeated Stanford 1-0.)
"Probably a good thing I had someone regularly checking my vitals during that game."
– Text Sunday night from Saints linebacker Scott Fujita(notes), who is sidelined with a staph infection and watched Sunday's dramatic victory from a New Orleans hospital room.