Give Cards credit for pulling off Super Surprise
Arizona thriving as underdog - because no one foresaw this NFC title
by Mike Celizic, NBCSports.com contributor
There aren't enough crows in the world for all the humble pies that all of us in the expert analysis business are going to have to eat. And there aren't enough words in Webster's lexicon to give sufficient credit to the Arizona Cardinals for what they did Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Cardinals are going to the Super Bowl.
I'm not sure the sentence exists that was less likely to be written than that one. Until Sunday, I would have been less surprised to read, "Lasting peace comes to the Middle East," "Ann Coulter endorses Hillary Clinton for President," "Keith Olbermann says, ‘Dick Cheney is one of the finest gentlemen I've ever met,' " or all of the above.
By comparison, the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 after 86 years of torment was child's play. The Tampa Rays getting to the World Series? A big ho-hum.
Forget taking your hats off to these guys. Take off everything and run naked down Broadway and you'd be close to the proper celebration for this one.
But this can only go so far. The Cardinals won't beat the AFC's finest in the Super Bowl. It's not that I don't believe it's possible. History's best 9-7 team could stretch credulity even further than it already has, but I think the Cardinals and their fans want to be the underdogs. They've gotten here by riding the we-don't-get-no-respect express, and there's no sense derailing them now by installing them as favorites - or even suggesting they have a shot.
Let them continue to find inspiration in the knowledge that no one believes in them. It's worked so far. Who knows? It could work for one more game. Nothing they do should amaze us anymore.
After three playoff wins, the reasons for Arizona trip to the Super Bowl are clear enough.
Kurt Warner, the two-time MVP who had fallen off the NFL map, came to Arizona to back up Matt Leinart. In the process of moving, he found the Superman cape he'd lost years earlier in St. Louis, put it on and led the Cards to the NFC West title. His partner in awesome offense is Larry Fitzgerald, who has established himself as the NFL's new state-of-the-art receiver.
Those are the two impact players who have put the Cardinals over the top. Kudos, too, to running back Edgerrin James, another recycled former star who moldered on the Arizona bench until he was thrown into the breach in the playoffs.
Coach Ken Whisenhunt didn't do much of a job motivating his team through November and December, but he's made up for it by getting this team ready for the playoffs. Assistant head coach Russ Grimm, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast deserve a lot of credit, too.
It's been a total team effort. The Cardinals' offensive and defensive lines have dominated through the playoffs. A team whose entire history - except for 1947 - has been a catalogue of failure rose up on Sunday after falling behind the Eagles in the fourth quarter and got the touchdown they needed to punch their ticket to Tampa.
But in the end, it all comes back to the ancient Warner and to Fitzgerald, a rising young star who has already eclipsed Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Randy Moss and everyone else as a receiver.
Warner has more incarnations than CSI. Warner is the guy who bagged groceries to pay the bills, who played in the Arena League and in Europe trying to prove he deserved a shot at the NFL. When he got it, he led the Rams to two Super Bowl appearances and one victory. But no sooner had he arrived at the top than he was discarded in favor of Marc Bulger.
He landed in New York, where he's known as the guy who lost the Giants' starting quarterback job to then-rookie Eli Manning. At the time, nobody said he didn't deserve to be benched. And when Arizona picked him up in 2005, he went from starter to back-up and starter again.
There was a sign hanging during the game that advised the Cards to "Shock the World." That's a tired line that has never been used without shameful hyperbole. Nothing that happens in American professional sports is ever going to shock the world, and I'm confident that the vast majority of the planet's 6.6 billion inhabitants went to bed Sunday night blissfully unaware that a professional football team in Arizona had done something that rattled the NFL to its foundations.
And that's all that matters. The Cardinals shocked the experts, shocked the fans, shocked the league in a way few teams ever have. Give them credit. They earned it.
Just don't call them favorites to win the Super Bowl. They've done just fine as everybody's underdog. They've hit on a formula, and I, for one, am not going to mess with it.
Mike Celizic writes regularly for NBCSports.com and is a freelance writer based in New York.
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