CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Deep inside a jubilant Arizona locker room about to come apart at the seams, Kurt Warner tightened a purple tie, slipped on his suit coat and tried to be the calm amid the cheers.
His Arizona Cardinals never may have been here before, winners of two playoff games in a single season. Warner, 37 and still slinging it, had. He wanted everyone to soak up the moment; then he wanted everyone to understand the stakes.
"We're one of four teams left," he said. "It's a special time, but understand what's in front of us."
He smiled at his own request. He knew there was no chance for perspective, not as midnight approached, not as the sweet satisfaction of the greatest victory in franchise history, a 33-13 blowout of the Carolina Panthers, began to sink in.
All over the room, players were celebrating by shouting taunts at all the experts who hadn't just picked against them but labeled them the worst playoff team of all time.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt, the man who kept making bold personnel decisions all year (none bigger than starting Warner), was over by the door, saying he welcomed the underdog status. Star receiver Larry Fitzgerald was in the middle, surrounded by reporters trying to figure out how he kept getting so open.
Along the back wall a few defensive players relived each of Jake Delhomme's six turnovers, all while imagining what a home NFC championship game might be like.
Warner couldn't help but appreciate it all, shake his head at the absurdity of something that even he, one of the great believers in the NFL, wasn't entirely sure could have occurred.
"At this age, at this stage of my career, to be a part of a team playing this well, I didn't know," he said before pausing a second.
No one knew. The Cardinals themselves may have believed they could shed a history of failure on the East Coast and sneak a victory out of here, but no one expected to manhandle the Panthers.
They were huge underdogs, playing against a perfect home team. They were starting a quarterback who was considered washed up a few washes ago and a running back in Edgerrin James who was benched for most of the season, and they were missing one of their star receivers, Anquan Boldin, due to injury.
It was Saturday night in Charlotte, the crowd was wild, the wind was picking up and the rain was starting to fall. Carolina even took a 7-0 lead. Knew? Who could know this was possible?
By halftime it was 27-7, Arizona.
For reasons that may be debated here forever, Carolina coach John Fox put together one of the strangest defensive game plans imaginable. More specifically, he put together the exact same defensive game plan he always does.
Even with Boldin out, the Panthers appeared to pay no extra attention to the one Cardinal who could really hurt them – Fitzgerald.
He rarely was bumped at the line or covered tightly in man-to-man. He mostly faced something that looked kind of like a soft two-man zone. It was like they were daring Warner and Fitzgerald to beat them, gambling the young man wasn't capable of running into the seams or the old man of finding him.
They got torched for it. Warner threw for 220 yards, 166 of them going to Fitzgerald. Of those, 151 (and a touchdown) came in the decisive first half.
"It seemed like he had the ball a lot," Fox said of Fitzgerald.
"They don't really change their schemes. … That's John Fox's motto," Fitzgerald said.
It was predictable enough that Whisenhunt put in a new play for Fitzgerald at Friday's walk-through. It went for 41 yards and set up the Cardinals' second touchdown. Soon after, the game effectively was over.
Warner was polite in discussing the coverage, but there had to be times he was stunned at the opportunity.
Prior to last week's victory over Atlanta, the former league MVP hadn't played in a playoff game since the 2001 season. Many thought he was in Phoenix to be nothing more than a mentor and insurance policy for Matt Leinart.
Maybe that included Carolina. Maybe making him beat you seemed like a good idea. Only here Warner was, orchestrating a greatest show on turf playoff encore.
He's the aging pitcher who has found his once-lost fastball, rejuvenated by a bunch of young guys who can catch it. Only now with all that experience, he's perfectly equipped for, well, at this point you can't rule anything out.
Warner won a Super Bowl nine years ago, yet it looked like he was enjoying this one, this unlikely road win, as much as any in his career.
"I never doubted it [was possible]," he said. "If I doubted it, I wouldn't have come back."
The locker room would clear out soon. Warner would grab a Gatorade, pull his luggage behind him and skip grabbing a pizza for the plane.
Here, one season and a couple of playoff weeks into a final shot that no one saw coming, after a near-perfect night few thought possible, his mind already was balancing the precious present and the sudden possibilities. On the charter flight home, he was going to talk to all these kids going wild.
"This isn't the goal," he said.
He sounded like he needed to remind himself first.
- Kurt Warner
- Larry Fitzgerald