The two men stood at the clubhouse bar, former allies turned adversaries enjoying one another's company in a completely relaxed setting. On a Friday afternoon last July at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in Nevada, where they were competing in the American Century Championship celebrity tournament, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) were nothing but smiles.
It was all good until, a few minutes later, the subject turned to Super Bowl XLIII. Instantly Whisenhunt, Roethlisberger's former offensive coordinator in Pittsburgh, began expressing overt frustration about the outcome of the thrilling climax to the '08 season.
"I thought we had you," Whisenhunt said, shaking his head and grimacing.
"I thought you did, too," Big Ben responded, trying hard to conceal his happiness.
The conversation turned specific, with each man providing insights into various elements of the epic game. At one point I asked Whisenhunt the same thing I'd asked him in the immediate aftermath of the Steelers' last-minute victory five months earlier: Despite his disappointment, could a part of him appreciate how terrific and timeless this Super Bowl had been?
He gave me the exact same answer: "No. Not really."
I thought back to that clubhouse scene last Sunday when the Cardinals clinched their second consecutive NFC West title. Arizona's sloppy, 31-24 victory at Detroit was nothing to brag about, and Whisenhunt's team arguably has been blessed with playing in football's least-competitive division the past two years – but I still regarded it as a significant achievement.
For only the second time in this decade – really a nine-year streak, because I'm starting with the 2000 Giants – the team that lost the Super Bowl will have a chance come January to compete for another championship.
The other exception came in 2006, when the Seahawks, coming off a 13-3 campaign, slipped to 9-7 but captured the NFC West. That was the year the 'Hawks won a wild-card game on Tony Romo's(notes) flubbed hold before falling to the eventual NFC champion Bears in the divisional round.
Last year's Patriots went 11-5 without Tom Brady(notes) but missed the postseason. The other six Super Bowl losers flopped miserably in their follow-up seasons: the Giants (2001), Rams ('02), Raiders ('03), Panthers ('04), Eagles ('05) and Bears ('07) all finished below .500.
I've written in the past about why this phenomenon might exist, and I'll probably do so again in the future. For now, I merely want to focus on the Cardinals, who from the time they returned from Tampa last February to this season's uninspired opener against the 49ers showed all the signs of a massive, tiger-in-the-hotel-room hangover.
Among the lowlights:
• After losing his highly regarded offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, who was hired as coach of the Chiefs, Whisenhunt fired defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, adding to the sense of upheaval.
• The organization lowballed free-agent quarterback Kurt Warner(notes), the man whose transcendent play was most responsible for the Cards' unlikely ascent, to the point where Warner had to go through the charade of visiting the rival Niners before receiving a market-value offer.
Throw in the reality that the Cardinals, who went 9-7 in the '08 regular season and looked atrocious down the stretch, weren't really an elite team until they got hot in the playoffs, and a '09 comedown seemed even more likely.
To Whisenhunt's credit, it didn't happen. The Cards have had their choppy moments, including a seven-turnover debacle in a Monday night defeat to the Niners in San Francisco two weeks ago, but they've also done some very good things, such as winning their first five road games (and six of eight overall) and exposing the Vikings' vulnerabilities at University of Phoenix Stadium earlier this month.
Now that they've made it into the playoffs, don't put it past the Cardinals to annihilate the Curse by winning it all.
Thanks largely to player personnel director Steve Keim, who recently emerged as a candidate for the Seahawks' vacant general manager job, the Cardinals have assembled a host of talented players who are able to elevate their games when it matters most.
Wells has combined for 189 rushing yards the past two weeks.
As with last year, they're achieving offensive balance at the right time: After averaging 64.9 rushing yards during the first seven games, they've run for 125.3 over their last seven, and rookie Beanie Wells(notes) (17 carries, 110 yards at Detroit) is coming off his first 100-yard game.
Most of all they have a future Hall of Fame quarterback who has played in three Super Bowls and won't be rattled by any playoff matchup, even if it's against the Saints in New Orleans.
If the Cards play to their potential, don't be stunned if next July in Tahoe, Whisenhunt is the guy doing his best to suppress a perpetual smile while schmoozing with vanquished foes at the clubhouse bar.
For now, here's our inquisitive list of the NFL's current hierarchy, beginning with a new team at the top and the "Same Old Rams" (that's my tribute to former 49ers safety Tim McDonald) at the bottom:
2. New Orleans Saints: How drunk was the dude at RT's Longboard Grill in San Diego Saturday night who wanted to bet me $200 the Saints would come back from two touchdowns down to beat the Cowboys – and how all-knowing did the guy seem when Nick Folk(notes) clanked that field goal off the upright?
3. San Diego Chargers: Once the ball left his foot, was there any doubt that Nate Kaeding(notes) would make that game-winning, 52-yard field goal on Sunday – and how far has the kicker come since that playoff defeat to the Patriots in '07?
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Was Andy Reid paying homage to Bill Belichick when he went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29 in the first quarter – and when the 49ers held, how many stat geeks chucked their calculators in anger?
7. Cincinnati Bengals: On a day when he had his first 300-yard passing game since the 2007 season, how crazy was it that Carson Palmer's(notes) best play was a diving, game-saving fumble recovery for a 20-yard loss?
12. New York Giants: Was that another crippling blizzard that swept through the nation's capital Monday night, or are the Giants just making a playoff push?
15. Miami Dolphins: How gutsy was Tony Sparano's decision to replace Chad Henne(notes) with Pat White(notes) for the game-tying two-point conversion attempt against the Titans – and is there any 32-year-old he'd rather give the ball to than Ricky Williams(notes)?
19. Jacksonville Jaguars: If the Jags fail Sunday in New England in what would be their final attempt to beat a winning team, will people finally believe me when I say they're frauds?
21. Carolina Panthers: Yo, Steve Smith – when you ripped "22" after Sunday night's victory over the 11-3 Vikings, you did realize that Minnesota cornerback Benny Sapp(notes) was "going home" regardless of the regular-season game's outcome, right?
26. Buffalo Bills: Are we there yet?
30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Were they really that good on Sunday – or were the Seahawks just more atrocious than we thought possible?
32. St. Louis Rams: Is Ndamukong Suh ready for The Lou?