Kurt Warner opened with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald and connected with Anquan Boldin on a 71-yard scoring play as the Cardinals beat Atlanta, 30-24, Saturday before a raucous, towel-waving crowd.
It was the franchise’s first home playoff game since the then-Chicago Cardinals beat Philadelphia to win the NFL championship in 1947.
“A lot of people coming into this game said we were the worst playoff team ever to get in,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “… I think we rallied around that.”
Atlanta rookie Matt Ryan was intercepted twice, was tackled in the end zone for a safety and fumbled the ball away on a botched handoff. That fumble was returned 27 yards by Antrel Rolle 52 seconds into the second half to put Arizona ahead for good.
Everyone knew the Cardinals could pass, but a stout defense and effective running game were a bonus.
“You have to really give credit first to their defense,” Falcons guard Harvey Dahl said. “They did an outstanding job. They were flying all over the place.”
Atlanta’s 60 yards rushing represented a season low.
“We couldn’t run the ball,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. “We had to throw it around a little bit more than we’re used to. Things like that kind of put us behind the 8-ball.”
Arizona’s Edgerrin James outgained Atlanta’s Michael Turner, the NFL’s No. 2 rusher.
“They controlled the line of scrimmage,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said of the Cardinals’ defense.
James, who has said he won’t be back with the Cardinals next season, carried 16 times for 73 yards. Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards in the regular season, had 42 yards in 18 attempts.
Warner, in the playoffs for the first time since leading St. Louis to a second Super Bowl in 2001, was 19-of-32, 13-for-17 in the second half, for 271 yards. He was intercepted once.
“I hope this gives us a lot of confidence,” Warner said. “I knew we thought we could win this game. Hopefully we can parlay this into some more confidence and know we can win wherever we have to go.”
Arizona will play at either the New York Giants or Carolina Panthers next weekend. Arizona has played both teams this season, losing 27-23 at Carolina on Oct. 26, and 37-29 at home to the Giants on Nov. 23.
Ryan, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, completed 26 of 40 passes for 199 yards and two scores.
The Cardinals went 9-7 to win a weak NFC West and make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. After clinching the division, they were blown out by Minnesota and New England in the two weeks preceding their regular-season finale victory over Seattle.
Atlanta (11-5) finished a game behind Carolina in the tough NFC South and came in a winner of five of its last six. But from the start Arizona showed that, at least on this afternoon, it belonged in the postseason.
“A lot of people in Atlanta were giving us no chance,” Arizona safety Adrian Wilson said. “There was a lot of talk in the paper from them about how it was a blessing for them to come out here – but it’s not sweet out here.”
Antonio Smith’s tackle of Ryan for a safety put Arizona ahead 30-17 with 12:37 to play.
The Falcons, who rebounded from a 4-12 season to make the playoffs, made it close late as Ryan’s 5-yard scoring pass to White cut it to 30-24 with 4:15 left.
But Warner completed passes to Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Stephen Spach as the Cardinals ran out the clock.