Expected to stumble in the franchise’s first home playoff game in 61 years, the Arizona Cardinals continued to prove they belong in the postseason with a 30-24 win over Atlanta in the opening round of the NFC playoffs over the weekend.
No one better understands the perception of the Cardinals as marshmallow soft around the league than the team’s head football coach, Ken Whisenhunt.
“A lot of people coming into this game said we were the worst playoff team ever to get in,” Whisenhunt said. “And nobody really gave us a chance. And I think we rallied behind that.”
Whisenhunt has used that perceived lack of respect as a motivational tool for his young team, which has several players with little playoff experience.
Even though they were the home team for Saturday’s game against the Falcons, the Cardinals were a slight underdog. And Arizona will be an even heavier underdog this weekend at Carolina with a spot in the NFC Championship Game at stake.
But with each postseason victory the Cardinals’ confidence grows, and they establish themselves as having enough talent to be a legitimate playoff team, not a flash in the pan, for years to come.
Two victories this season over Seattle – the former four-time NFC West title holder – helped boost egos in Arizona. The Cardinals went 6-0 against the NFC West for the first time this season, and finished with an overall winning record for the first time in a decade. Whisenhunt acknowledged the importance of defeating NFC rivals during his team’s preparation for the Seahawks in the last game of the regular season.
“They have been champions for so long, and we have been trying to take that from them,” Whisenhunt said of the Seahawks.
But can the Cardinals keep it going next season? Arizona will have to decide if it wants to continue with aging quarterback Kurt Warner or turn to green quarterback Matt Leinart to run its explosive offense. Edgerrin James, angered to be idle at midseason, demonstrated he can still be productive. But he says he will not return after rookie Tim Hightower supplanted him as the starting tailback.
Defensively, the Cardinals can create turnovers and game-changing plays, but still allowed 26.6 points a contest, which ranked 28th overall in the league.
However, playing well at home was the key to Seattle maintaining its stranglehold on the NFC West. And for the first time since 2002 the Seahawks had a losing record at home, finishing 2-6 at Qwest Field.
The Cardinals, however, have been hard to beat at University of Phoenix Stadium, leading the NFC with a 12-4 home record the last two seasons.
Further, the Cardinals have won four of their past five against Seattle, earning an edge in the key rivalry.
While the Cardinals are reveling in their success, the Seahawks are plotting a return to the NFC West dominance they enjoyed before falling to 4-12 this season.
With longtime head coach Mike Holmgren gone, Seahawks president Tim Ruskell and new coach Jim Mora will shoulder the major responsibility for returning Seattle to respectability.
Veteran Seattle players, who point to injuries and a lack of cohesion for the team’s slide in 2008, think Seattle can experience a quick turnaround in 2009.
“Obviously there’s going to be some changes,” linebacker Julian Peterson said. “But the biggest thing is we’re a better team from that. We’re going to have the right character guys who I feel like are going to help us, and then bring some extra guys in to help us to get back to where we need to be.”
Defensive end Patrick Kerney echoed Peterson’s sentiments, saying that his teammates must understand that there is a fine line in the NFL between being a playoff team and staying home for the postseason.
“The difference between a team that’s going to win a Super Bowl and the Detroit Lions is not as much as people think,” Kerney said. “And I think outside sources want to paint it as a mile, and it’s really an inch. I think we as players recognize that. I think it’s important that young guys with less experience recognize that you don’t have too much ground to cover to get back into contention for a world championship.”
HAS CHANGE COME?
The Arizona Cardinals won their first NFC West title this season, knocking the Seahawks from atop the division they’d won four times since moving into it in 2002. A look at the NFC West champions since the Hawks joined:
SEASON TEAM RECORD
2008 Cardinals 9-7
2007 Seahawks 10-6
2006 Seahawks 9-7
2005 Seahawks 13-3