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01-19-2009, 07:56 AM
Whisenhunt roots for Cards-Steelers game
By Jack Magruder, FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, January 19, 2009


GLENDALE, Ariz. The Arizona Cardinals ruined the NFC half of a potential Pennsylvania super showdown Sunday, then gathered in front of television sets to see who they would meet in Super Bowl XLIII.

There was strong sentiment in favor of a matchup with the Steelers.

Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt was the offensive coordinator on the Steelers' Super Bowl team three years ago, and he spent six seasons with the organization before being hired in Arizona for the 2007 season.

"Absolutely," Whisenhunt said when asked if he were excited to play Pittsburgh. "I mean, I'm glad we are playing in it, but the reason I am here is because of my time with Pittsburgh, and I am very grateful for that."

Former Pitt standout Larry Fitzgerald scored three first-half touchdowns for the Cardinals, who blew a big lead before coming back in the fourth quarter for a 32-25 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

"It's great to be in this position," Fitzgerald said. "That defense is unbelievable. We know we are going to have our work cut out."

The Eagles came in with the same reputation, but Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was masterful adjusting to their blitzes while completing 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards for a 145.7 passer rating.

He will make his third Super Bowl appearance, his first since the 2001 season with St. Louis. He led the Rams to the NFL title after the 1999 season.

The Cardinals have won more playoff games (three) in the last three weeks than in the previous 87 years of franchise's existence, and they won them all as underdogs.

Can they do it one more time against the AFC champions?

"Yes we can," said former Pitt linebacker Gerald Hayes said. "Everybody who doubted us ... look at us right now. Look at us right now."

The No.4-seeded Cardinals are the lowest NFC seed ever to reach the Super Bowl after concluding a playoff streak similar to the underdog Steelers' run to the Super Bowl after the 2005 season as the No. 6 seed.

The Cardinals will enter the Super Bowl after playoff victories over Atlanta, Carolina and now the Eagles, in Whisenhunt's second season. The Cardinals won the NFL title game in 1947, and won one playoff game after that, in 1998.

"I'm nave enough to think we could have a chance in the first year," Whisenhunt said. "That's the way you have to approach it."

Warner led Cardinals on a 72-yard scoring drive that ate up 7:52 of the fourth quarter and culminated in an 8-yard touchdown pass to Tim Hightower, overcoming a 25-24 deficit.

"We got in the huddle and we knew what we had to accomplish. Nobody was going crazy, hyperventilating or anything like that," Warner said. "We had done some good things today. Now we had to do it one more time."

The Cardinals converted on fourth-down-and-one-foot and a third-and-1, both on runs by Hightower, before the go-ahead score.

Warner faked a red-zone staple, a short out pattern to wide receiver Anquan Boldin (he played despite a sore left hamstring) that had worked so well in the regular season, before throwing a screen pass to Hightower on the other side. Hightower bulled over safety Quintin Demps at the 1.

"We've had the highest of highs and lowest of lows," said Hightower, remembering a 48-20 loss to the Eagles on Nov. 28 and a 47-7 loss at New England three weeks later. "We knew it would be a fourth-quarter game."

Fitzgerald tied an NFL conference championship game with his three touchdown receptions, of 9, 62 and 1 yards.

The 62-yarder for a 14-3 lead it was 24-6 at half came on a gadget play, after Warner handed the ball to halfback J.J. Arrington on an apparent sweep of right end before Arrington stopped and passed back to Warner, who had drifted deep to the left.

Warner lofted a pass toward Fitzgerald, who grabbed the ball after Demps fell down while trying to find the ball.

"It's a scary play," Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "There are a lot of variables. You can't call it against the blitz. It's obviously a lot of ball-handling. Protection is the hard part. The hard part isn't getting Larry one-on-one with the safety. That part you feel good about. You give Larry a chance to make a play."

Fitzgerald joined Gary Collins (Cleveland, 1964) and Preston Pearson (Dallas, 1975) as the only players with three touchdown receptions in a conference title game.

"That was a play we had seen on tape that got past Philadelphia in past years," Fitzgerald said. "We know their safeties like to hit it hard on the run, coming up and supporting."

Fitzgerald had nine catches for 152 yards, in the process setting an NFL playoff record with 419 yards in three games. Jerry Rice had 409 in 1998.

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