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Cards defense undergoes transformation

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The last time Donovan McNabb and the Philadelphia Eagles saw the Arizona Cardinals' defense, the scene looked like something they might encounter in a 7-on-7 drill during a midweek practice.

On a Thanksgiving night to forget for the visitors, the Eagles played the role of carving knife to the Cards' turkey, rolling to a 48-20 victory that featured four McNabb scoring passes and four Brian Westbrook trips to the end zone.

Seven weeks later, as he prepares for a rematch in Sunday's NFC championship game that no one saw coming, Arizona safety Antrel Rolle can't wait to come back for seconds.

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Smith and the Cards kept the pressure on Carolina's Jake Delhomme.
(Bob Donnan/US Presswire)

"They kicked our ass all over the field last time," Rolle said Thursday night as he dined at trendy City Hall Steakhouse with a group that included teammates Roderick Hood and Edgerrin James. "But if they think they're going to do that again, they are seriously mistaken. That will not happen this time. We are not the same team."

Such bravado might sound strange coming from a player whose team had its share of defenseless disasters, including a 56-35 loss to the Jets in September and, after clinching its first division title in 33 years, consecutive December defeats to the Minnesota Vikings (35-14) and New England Patriots (47-7).

Yet as atrocious as the Cards looked at the end of the regular season, they've undergone a stark personality transformation in the playoffs, shutting down the potent running games of the Atlnat Falcons and Carolina Panthers and forcing a combined nine turnovers in a pair of upset victories.

"We definitely caught [the Falcons] off guard," defensive end Antonio Smith said Thursday at the team's training facility in Tempe. "They didn't know what hit them. They thought we were the same team that got beat by New England. They were in for a rude awakening."

What woke up the Cardinals – and how did they effect dramatic change so quickly?

"I have no idea," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "Our defense is so much about energy and playing with emotion. When we bring that, we've played well. When we don't, we've struggled. Since the playoffs started, it seems like every opportunity we've had, we've taken advantage of."

In the wake of the disastrous trip to Foxborough, Mass., in which the Cards were humiliated by the Pats, the prevailing emotion was anger. It was an afternoon that began miserably and literally snowballed – players on the Arizona sideline dodged snowballs thrown by New England fans throughout the game. The Patriots scored on nine of their first 10 possessions and gained 514 yards.

Said Smith: "That whole game, it was a reality check in what was going on with the team. It just got worse and worse. It forced us to really look at what was going on with our focus and decide what we wanted to be. What changed was we all bought into team defense. We hit the reset button and went back to basics. In the playoffs, you can't be out there moving around on every play, doing your own thing."

Three days later, head coach Ken Whisenhunt told the Cardinals that it was "time to put the big-boy pads on" and engage in some spirited practices that, pending his evaluation of the starters' effort, could lead to lineup changes. He and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast drilled the Arizona defenders on the importance of discipline, insisting that if each player resisted the temptation to freelance and followed his assignment, things would improve immeasurably.

Lo and behold, the coaches were right.

"A lot of it was the team jelling, finding its identity," said defensive end Travis LaBoy. "It's just a matter of sticking with what we do and not trying to reach too hard. A lot of guys were pressing to make plays. We realized that by using proper techniques and following assignments, those plays fall into our laps."

Said Whisenhunt: "I think it's more about being unselfish. We have a bunch of guys who are playmakers, and they want to make plays. But when you try too hard to do that, that makes you a little unsound."

Can it be so simple as a collective commitment to discipline at an opportune time? I'd be more skeptical if I hadn't heard virtually the same story from the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, who, like the '08 Cards, endured one of the most embarrassing December meltdowns in recent memory and got a nearly identical lecture from their head coach.

Awful against the run all season, the Colts surrendered 375 rushing yards in a 44-17 defeat to Jacksonville – the second-highest total since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. At that point, coming off their third defeat in four games, they looked more like roadkill than legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

"We're going to see what we're made of from here," then-coach Tony Dungy told reporters after the loss to the Jags, later using the word haywire to describe his team's defensive effort.

What Dungy said later to his embattled defenders was this: It's not as bad as you think. These things are correctable. If everyone stays in his gap and does his job, we'll be OK.

And, amazingly, they were: The Colts, who averaged a league-worst 173 rushing yards per game during the regular season, didn't make any major schematic adjustments for the playoffs. Yet they held the Chiefs (and 1,789-yard rusher Larry Johnson) to 44 rushing yards in their first-round game and kept the Ravens (83), Patriots (93) and Bears (113) to manageable totals en route to a Super Bowl championship.

"I do remember that," Smith said. "And I remember the exact same thing happening with the Colts that's happening with us."

To continue the analogy, the Arizona's '08 defense has some similarities to Indy's '06 championship unit: The Cardinals feature a relatively undersized but fast group of talented athletes who, when positioned correctly, are adept at making big plays.

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Rodgers-Cromartie goes up in front of Atlanta's Roddy White for the pick.
(Jeff Gross/Getty)

It has also helped that, in early November, rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup, using his exceptional speed, agility, height and ball skills to assume primary coverage duty on the opposing team's top wideout. DRC, as he is known to teammates, has made interceptions in each of Arizona's playoff victories – though they have hardly been the former Tennessee State star's most impressive feats.

"You'll be walking between practice fields," Hood said Thursday night, "and you'll feel a hand on your shoulder. And before you know it, DRC will push off and leap up and over you. The guy's freakish."

Talk about getting a jump on the competition. Another of the rookie's virtues, Rolle said, is that "he's not awed by anyone else's ability relative to his own. He just lines up and competes."

This is what the Cardinals' rejuvenated defenders, from disruptive tackle Darnell Dockett to Pro Bowl strong safety Adrian Wilson, plan to do on Sunday in front of a charged-up University of Phoenix Stadium crowd. They're well aware that their national image was tarnished by their regular-season failures and that Arizona, with Warner throwing to fellow Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, is considered an offensive powerhouse that needs to outscore opponents to win.

Plenty of pundits expect a sequel to the Thanksgiving horror show. It's possible the Eagles, at least in the back of their minds, share that belief.

"I don't blame teams for thinking they can run over us," Rolle said Thursday as he prepared to leave the steakhouse. "But we're a different team now, and we're determined to show it. This game is a matter of pride. We've been upstaged for too long here. We've got an opportunity to change that and get some respect. No one's going to give you any – you've got to earn it."

A few minutes later, Rolle and his teammates were rolling home in their respective rides. Together, they had just devoured a cruise-ship-buffet-sized spread of steak and seafood.

Rest assured, they were still hungry.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The Eagles have that '07 Giants sheen, but Kurt Warner has that glazed look in his eyes, is at home in a de facto dome and owns the hottest passing hand in the land: Cardinals to the Super Bowl – wrap your head around it. … Anquan Boldin, so tough that he doesn't do pain meds, will suck it up and play against the Eagles – and, unlike his Panthers counterpart, Philly defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will find a way to bracket Larry Fitzgerald for much of the afternoon. … The Steelers and the Ravens will spend three hours pummeling one another at Heinz Field, and as with their last matchup, Ben Roethlisberger will be the last (and best) quarterback standing.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Hmmm, let's see. Sunshine? Check. Short flight from California? Check. Awesome Mexican food? Check. Great conference title-game matchup featuring two teams that, a few weeks ago, no one expected to be here? Check. Traditional expensive dinner with Edgerrin James and entourage, as a special shout-out to my former Sports Illustrated bosses? Check. Chance to pen the latest chapter of a star quarterback's career on which, 8½ years ago, I wrote the book? Well, that's six reasons to go to Arizona this weekend (as if I needed more than one).

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Inspired by Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl's decision to change his surname to reflect his support for the home team in Sunday's AFC championship game, Buffalo mayor Byron W. Brown, in light of recent activities at Ralph Wilson Stadium, will now be known as Byron Women's Bathroomstahl.

2. OMG! This Florida ninth-grader broke my record for most texts in a month.

3. ESPN.com is the most-frequented sports website.

OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE

With the news that Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney was fined $20,000 by the NFL for comments about the officiating he made to me following Indy's playoff defeat in San Diego, I wondered: How long before someone in my profession goes all Rod Blagojevich (allegedly) and tells an athlete who rips the refs, "Dude, I'll keep this out of my article for 10 grand"?

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Scott Murray, a Madera County (Calif.) Sheriff's Deputy who died unexpectedly last Friday at 32. I never met Scott, but his sister, Cass Dilfer, and her husband, Trent, are two of the most compassionate and resilient people I know, having already endured the most brutal loss imaginable when they lost their son, Trevin, in 2003. My thoughts and prayers are with them, as well as Scott's wife of eight months, Kristie, and the entire family.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Hi, I'm Mike Montgomery, and this Saturday evening at Maples Pavilion I'll be taking a trip down memory lane – with my first-place team that owns a nine-game winning streak and its first AP Top-25 ranking in nearly six years. This is not a coincidence. This is what I do. Be sure to give me a great big blue-and-gold welcome – like the one that Cal's other awesome hoops coach, Joanne Boyle, will be receiving at Haas Pavilion the following day when her No. 11 Bears do battle with No. 9 Stanford – and enjoy Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, Theo Robertson and the rest of my soon-to-be-bustling-with-stud-recruits operation. Don't hate; appreciate. Thanks for the memories. Go Bears.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

in love with Graf

ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS

It has been eight weeks since Reading lost a match in the Football League Championship, a streak that continued with last Friday's 4-0 drubbing of Watford at Madejski Stadium. Goals by Chris Armstrong, Noel Hunt, Kevin Doyle and Leroy Lita and another shutout by keeper Adam Federici pushed the second-place Royals four points shy of league-leading Wolverhampton. Reading travels to Swansea City (a team it defeated 4-0 in September) for its next match this Saturday before returning home for an epic showdown with Wolves on Jan. 27.

TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)

"Sorry Silver, it's too late for you to write a positive article regarding the Eagles. It's way too late. All the hating you've done on them this year has been ridiculous and you should be embarrassed for yourself and for your eyebrows. Even in your interviews with Larry Beil, you were found laughing at [Charles] Robinson for picking the Eagles to go to the Super Bowl. It looks like he'll be the one laughing now. Where's your season-long top 10 team [Dallas] at right now Silver? That's right, they're watching the Birds late season run to the Super Bowl. Oh and also, all this inconsistancy that you speak of with Philly? How is 6-1 in the last 7 games for consistancy. You're a fool."

Ryan Glackin
Philadelphia

Alright, folks, that's it – no more positive articles regarding the Eagles, for Ryan Glackin has decreed that it is way too late for me to do so. I'll still attend the NFC championship game, as planned, and if the Eagles win I suppose my choices will be to a) rip them anyway; b) write about the Cardinals; or c) not write anything at all. If that bothers anyone, I'm sorry, but that's the way it must be. Mr. Glackin, you see, is the final authority on this matter, despite his consistently erroneous spelling of "consistency."


"Why you always gotta make sure we know you're pals with athletes? So Edgerrin James sends you a text. Whoop-dee-damn-do. Keep it to yourself."

Gary Shepard
Gary, Ind.

Whoops, there goes Text/IM/Email/Voicemail of the Week, because Gary from Gary doesn't like it when I share those communiqués with athletes. Pretty soon I'll be submitting exceptionally short columns, limited only to brief passages in which I apologize for not having picked the Eagles.


"Suzy Kolber is sending you messages?! I'd be happy just to send her one and not have it blocked."

Joe Namath
Eau Claire, Wis.

Say it ain't so, Joe.


"Hello Michael, I respect you greatly as a sports columnist for Yahoo! Sports and highly enjoy your articles. I'm a military brat from Baltimore but have long been a Philadelphia Eagles fan. I just wanted to ask you if you had a personal issue with the Eagles? Are you an NFC East rival team's fan? It's OK! I just have noticed that practically all season long, you have picked against the Eagles! Do you honestly think one-dimensional Arizona has a shot against Philadelphia's defense? They have been consistent all year long with the exception of three games! I'll take this matchup in Philadelphia or Arizona."

Douglas
Baltimore

I have absolutely nothing against the Eagles or any other NFL team. I have 32 babies, and I love them equally (though some have nannies who whine more loudly than others when I pick against them). I am a fan only of my kids' teams, any Cal team or any team that is playing Stanford or USC.


"Yo Michael, why would you pick against the Chargers in the … Steelers game? SD was your pick to be in the Super Bowl, and genius that you are, they are still on that path to victory. … Don't doubt yourself, be confident! After all, how many teams picked by all the other sports gurus are already knocked of the playoffs? You are a winner Michael Silver and gosh darn it, everyone likes you!"

Robert Darrow
San Diego

I'm definitely a winner. So, too, is the guy who played Stuart Smalley.


"Michael, I do enjoy your witty columns and am an avid follower. I give you props for picking the Cards to win. As an Eagles fan I'm faced with a dilemma. Since you have always picked against the Eagles, they have always won, but every time you pick Arizona, is wins too. So if you pick Arizona next week, the football gods may hear you again. Let's hope things don't go your way."

JP
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Man, I feel powerful.


"So if I read that right and did the math … you're 6-foot-2 and about 190 lbs? Thanks … I can officially take you off of my 'guys I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley list.' "

Lance
Sacramento, Calif.

You might want to reconsider, Sir Lancelot. After all, I am seldom without my poison pen.


"I love your articles in general but I really thought this week's lyric-altered song was genius … and totally true. I still fail to comprehend why there are so many haters of your work out there. You're witty, intelligent, and passionate about the sport without being biased for (or against) any of the teams … unless we count your love for all things California. :-) I wish the haters would spend more time focusing on the reasons behind your picks against their teams rather than the picks themselves. Maybe then they'd avoid wasting their time each week sending you grammatically incorrect drivel that screams 'I didn't bother to do my homework!' Anyways, much love to you and your article! Disappear Haters! Disappear!"

Meg
Harrisonburg, Va.

Watch out, haters. My sources tell me that Meg is, in fact, a witch. But she's a good witch, like Glinda. And a very smart one.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

Upon learning of Michael Irvin's scary brush with carjacking in North Dallas earlier this week, I thought immediately of his former Cowboys teammate Troy Aikman, who apparently has become quite the authority in scoring secure rides. Then Aikman sent me an MP3 file – or, at least, I imagined that he did – with a hip-hop primer for The Playmaker, a 21st Century remix of a 2Pac classic ("Ambitionz Az a Ridah") from the glory days of the Triplets.

I won't deny it, I'm a straight ridah
You don't wanna mess with me
Got the police escortin' me
So they won't do nuttin' to Joe B.

(Let's get ready to ruuumbllle!!)

Now you know how we do like a QB
What really go on in the mind of a baller
that get down for Fox
Dominate, with our statistician

I won't deny it, I'm a straight ridah
You don't wanna mess with me
Got the police escortin' me
I won't deny it, I'm a straight ridah
Police escortin' me
I won't deny it, I'm a straight ridah
Got the police escortin' me
I won't deny it, I'm a straight ridah …

Not movin' without muscle
Workin' the mic hustle
My ambitionz az a ridah!
My ambitionz az a ridah!

So many battlefield scars while driven in town cars
Life as a football star never took me this far
Rollin' with a Marshal, pretendin' I'm impartial
Ownin' the boulevard and memorizin' my flip card
Hear me Playmaker – be a mover and a shaker
The next dude who step to you? Time for him to meet his maker
Uhh, and my ambitionz az a ridah to pop him
Michael stop, where's your cop? Come see my driver
You rollin' down your window, "Can I tell you who I am?"
Now you got a new BFF, 'cause he's a Cowboy fan
Give him some bomb-ass weed, it's your brother's
You're charmin' those thugs at the stoplight? Get some cover
From tailgaitin' fans, to all them crazy autograph seekers
I got no time for these people, man, cause I am a tweaker
I'm on a press-box mission, look at Phil – Nantz he wishin'
Competition get a grip, yeah Stu Scott he be stressin' (boo-yaa!)
I'm a ride low, clown Joe like it's mandatory
No guts no glory, yo Pam I called you a cab, don't worry
Now it's on and it's on because I run Fox
Can't trust the Worldwide Leader so I got with Murdoch
Now these jealous ass broadcasters comin' at us
Followin' us out of the hotel, they closin' faster
But Thug QB be on point and game tight (yeah)
Me, Buck and Stat Guy, wrap it up the same night
Them haters can't handle it, the siren on my hood
We got bulletproof glass, so kiss my ass, you heard me? It's all good
Uhh, yeah, Playmaker, please let me advise ya
Hopin' you listen I catch you payin' attention
to my amibitionz az a ridah

I won't deny it, I'm a straight ridah
You don't wanna mess with me
My ambitionz as a ridah
Got the police escortin' me
So they won't do nuttin' to Joe B …