Turnover battle crucial in Cards' first-round win

James C. Black

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Antonio Smith struggled to describe the antics that resulted in an excessive celebration penalty.

"I don't know what that was," the Arizona Cardinals defensive end said of teammate Darnell Dockett, riding his back following Smith's fourth-quarter safety. "I was trying to get up to celebrate with the fans, and Dockett just came over and beat me on my head. Then it just turned into an all-out celebration.

"We might call it 'The Rodeo.' "

Truth be told, that would be an accurate depiction of the whole scene because visiting quarterback Matt Ryan was lassoed throughout Arizona's 30-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC wild-card game at University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Ryan, the offensive rookie of the year and a captivating force of the 2008 campaign, was harassed and knocked down (three sacks) by a pass rush that had been pushed around by playoff-caliber clubs in the regular season.

"It's tough to win when you're minus on the turnover ratio," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "The three turnovers I thought were very, very big."

None bigger than the start of the second half, when Atlanta seemed to have all the momentum after scoring two second-quarter touchdowns to take a 17-14 lead at intermission.

After a 3-yard completion to tight end Justin Peelle on first down from Atlanta's 27-yard line, disaster struck. The Falcons called for a run play to tailback Michael Turner. Dockett, spearheading a strong Cardinals rush, arrived as Turner was taking the handoff and the ball flew into the air.

Antrel Rolle, who scored on a 40-yard interception return in Week 9 against the Rams, saw nothing but space and opportunity.

"Darnell did a good job of jumping the snap count. I think he went through … the fullback and made a heck of a play," said Rolle, who turned the fortuitous bounce into a 27-yard score (the Cardinals' first-ever defensive touchdown in postseason play) and a 21-17 Arizona lead. "I was there to capitalize on it.

"Once the ball is in my hands … I try to get seven for the offense. Makes their job a lot easier."

From beginning to end, the Cardinals defenders did a lot to make life easier for Kurt Warner (19-of-32 passing, 271 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) and the offense.

On Atlanta's opening possession, Ryan was intercepted by Ralph Brown as he essentially threw into triple coverage in search of Roddy White.

"I just made a poor throw. Poor read," said Ryan, who attempted 40 passes – a total surpassed just twice in the regular season. "You can't do that, especially in games like this."

The outcome repeated itself late in the third quarter, when Ryan hung one up with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie working single coverage against White on the sideline.

"The ball was underthrown," White said. "You just have to come back and try to knock it down."

Rodgers-Cromartie was not surprised that Ryan kept looking for White (11 catches, 84 yards, TD). "That's what they do," Rodgers-Cromartie said. "That's part of the game plan, to get him the ball a lot."

However, he believed he was under personal attack "because I'm a rookie."

But the spotlight shined brighter on the other first-year star. And Ryan and the Falcons were up to the challenge, withstanding Arizona's early punches to jump ahead.

"They changed their mindset on how to attack us," Antonio Smith said. "They were throwing the ball on first down instead of running it – the little short passes to get them in third-and-short, so they could run the ball again to extend the drive.

"Once we honed in on that in the second half, that wasn't happening anymore."

Especially with the Falcons backed up at their 3 and trailing 28-17 in the fourth quarter.

"We looked at each other and said, 'We're going to make a play. We're going to get a safety.' " Dockett said. "Any time we get a team backed up like that, we have our ears back and we're hungry."

The Cardinals indeed got the safety, essentially writing their ticket for a second-round road matchup against either the Giants or Panthers next weekend. Both teams beat Arizona this year and were part of the playoff-caliber collection that contributed to the Cardinals finishing 28th in points allowed (26.6) this season – by far the worst of playoff qualifiers.

"I know next week [the media] won't give us a chance – and that's cool," Dockett said. "We're just going to study and work hard and feed off of everyone who doesn't give us a chance."