Cardinals and Eagles proving it

January 17, 2009 8:37:15 PM PST
One by one, the players walked through the Arizona Cardinals' spacious locker room showing off their "Prove It" T-shirts. They might as well have been Philadelphia Eagles, too. Is there any phrase more pertinent for Sunday's NFC championship game than the one adopted by the Cardinals? For both sides?

Consider, first, the NFC West champions.

The Cardinals haven't won a league title since 1947. They hadn't taken a division crown in 33 years before this season, when they managed it primarily by going 6-0 against weaklings San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis. In matchups with some of the NFL's bully boys - the Giants, Panthers and Patriots - they lost by a combined 111-59.

Throw in a 48-20 Thanksgiving night roasting at Philadelphia and, well, "Prove It" indeed.

"It is a motivation thing," linebacker Karlos Dansby acknowledged. "We have to prove to the world that we can play at this level and play at a high level and try to win on this stage."

A stage few people outside of the Valley of the Sun - and probably most folks in Arizona - never imagined the Cardinals would reach this year. Even when, following an early clinching of the division, they turned around a December swoon by beating Seattle, a common description of the Cardinals was "the worst division winner in NFL history."

"It definitely put fuel to the fire," Dansby said. "We were motivated, and we had a lot of poise on the defense and on the offense."

Predicted to lose to Atlanta in the wild-card round, the Cardinals won 30-24, outgaining the Falcons by 107 yards, getting three sacks and forcing three turnovers.

Most observers shrugged.

But when they went to Carolina, where the Cardinals fell 27-23 during the season, and romped 33-13, getting six takeaways, well, they certainly had proved something.

"I think we have corrected some things, made less mistakes," said Kurt Warner, one of the few Cardinals with any knowledge of championship game surroundings. Warner, the 1999 and 2001 NFL Most Valuable Player with two trips to the Super Bowl and one win, has been a settling force for Arizona (11-7).

"Guys have gone and focused on the details a little more. We have taken advantage of plays that are there to be made.

"What we saw happen against us in those games we lost we are starting to do now. When somebody else makes a mistake, you see us getting an interception ... you see us getting a 40- or 50-yard play. That is what the difference is in where we were down the stretch and where we are right now and how we have played in the playoffs."

The Eagles were in a much more dire situation in December. While the Cardinals were trying to get straightened out before the postseason, Philly was trying to figure out how to get into the playoffs. It needed more help than was rightful to ask for.

Yet the Eagles got that help. Sure, they had to recover from Donovan McNabb's benching in a lopsided loss at Baltimore. And from a tie at lowly Cincinnati. And from a misstep at Washington in the penultimate week of the schedule.

But they also required cooperation from others.

So when the Week 17 requirements were for Tampa Bay to lose at home to the awful Raiders, and for Chicago to go to Houston and fall, and for the Eagles to beat the Cowboys in Philadelphia with the final wild-card berth on the line - Philly, well, proved it.

Everything fell the Eagles' way. So much so that they drew a good matchup in the first round of the playoffs and won 26-14 at Minnesota.

And even the next round wasn't fearful because the Eagles had won at the defending champion Giants on Dec 7. Their 23-11 victory last Sunday was just as emphatic.

At 11-6-1, they had set up the first conference championship game between teams that won only nine times in the regular season. "I think this group has been very loose and that's the way we've approached things for weeks," McNabb said. "I've been a part of a group that was tight, coming into this situation, and I've been a part of a team, obviously, where we didn't know what tight was. You know what? This team has continued to treat it as if it's just a normal game and just go out to practice and have a great time.

"We haven't had any problems with guys being hesitant in any way or wondering what if? Guys just understanding that, if we go out and do what we've been doing the previous weeks and just try to improve on it, dreams can come true."

In other words, they can "Prove It."


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