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Arizona quarterback Boomer Esiason is an optimist, as anyone
fortunate enough to be released by the Jets should be. On Sunday
at Sun Devil Stadium, after Philadelphia erased the 29-20 lead
he had staked the Cardinals to just two minutes earlier, Esiason
found himself facing a one-point deficit with 52 seconds left
and no timeouts. He refused to pout. Or panic. Spotting former
Eagles defensive tackle and current ESPN reporter Mike Golic
behind the Arizona bench, Esiason warmly shook his hand, smiled
and said, "Gimme 45 seconds, and I can win this thing."

Archimedes' boasts were more restrained. Remember, these are the
Cardinals for whom Esiason toils, a team that has had 11
straight nonwinning seasons under five coaches, a franchise 49
years removed from its last playoff victory. "There's a lot of
history with this team, a lot of bad history," said middle
linebacker Eric Hill, 30, last Thursday. "It's been seven years
of getting my butt kicked."

This autumn, however, Esiason and the Cardinals are kicking
back. He needed just 38 of his desired 45 seconds to march 66
yards and find wideout Marcus Dowdell on a 24-yard scoring pass
that disposed of Philly, 36-30. The win, their third straight,
vaulted the Cards to 6-6, tying them with upcoming opponent
Minnesota for the final NFC playoff berth. It was a victory
representative of character, something the Cardinals have lacked
since migrating to Arizona from St. Louis nine years ago, and it
reduced Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams to tears. "We
finally have our eyes at water level," said Williams, as he
slowly trod off the field, savoring the fans' cheers. "We're not
above water yet, but we're no longer drowning, either."

Esiason, meanwhile, has ridden the most prolific three-game wave
of his career, throwing for an astounding 1,149 yards (average
yards per game: 383) and eight TDs. "It's nothing really
miraculous," says Esiason of his surreal November. "Just
athletes screaming for a chance to make plays."

In Arizona's first win of the season, a 28-14 defeat of New
Orleans on Sept. 22, running back LeShon Johnson rushed for 214
yards. The next week Kent Graham, who had replaced Esiason at
the helm after the Cards fluttered to an 0-3 start, threw four
TD passes to beat the Rams in overtime, 31-28. Johnson and
Graham have something in common with Esiason: They too have each
been released from an NFL roster (the Packers' and the Lions',
respectively) in the last 12 months. "Boomer is a winner, that's
all there is to it," says Williams. "Players emulate what they

The 35-year-old Esiason has proved just as valuable off the
field. On the September afternoon when he was demoted to
second-string for the first time in his career, he was driving
home from practice on Interstate 10 when he spotted Graham's car
up ahead. Accelerating to pull alongside, Esiason called out,
"How about we go get some dinner?"

"I'm too old and too tired to stab people in the back," says
Esiason, who would reclaim the starter's role because of
Graham's sprained right knee, "but Kent needed to hear that from
me, face-to-face."

For the previous two years the Cardinals had followed the tone
set by coach Buddy Ryan, who introduced himself to Cardinals
fans by proclaiming, "You've got a winner in town." Ryan and his
players then became more combative, if not more competitive.
Minutes before the final game of Ryan's two-year, 12-20
campaign, a 37-13 loss at home to Dallas, Hill and then teammate
Chadrick Brown, a defensive end, engaged in an all-out locker
room fistfight. This on Christmas, a day when oversized men clad
in red are supposed to be jolly.

One day later Ryan was fired, and in February, owner Bill
Bidwill named Colts defensive coordinator Vince Tobin Arizona's
new coach. Unassuming and detail-oriented, the 53-year-old Tobin
imported 28 new players, Esiason chief among them, in an effort
to purge the Cardinals of their negative attitude. It should be
noted that Tobin's opening words as coach, blindly optimistic
though they seemed at the time, were, "It's certainly great to
be here."

It certainly is. Just ask Boomer.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO When Philly put the pressure on, Esiason refused to be rattled, amassing 367 yards and three TDs. [Boomer Esiason and Philadelphia Eagles player in game]


If New York's defense can hold Philadelphia's Ricky Watters as
it did Emmitt Smith on Sunday (11 carries for 18 yards), then
1996 might become a flashback of '94 for the Eagles, who became
the first team in NFL history to start 7-2 and finish with a
losing record.

An AFC wild-card special. New England's explosive attack
averages 25.8 points and 22 first downs. San Diego must counter
with a strong running game; when the Chargers outrush the
opposition, they're 5-0.

With their future ownership still unresolved, this may be the
start of the Seahawks' swan song in Seattle. To reach 12-1 for
the second time ever, Denver must protect John Elway better than
it did in Week 2, when the Seahawks sacked him five times.

Cincinnati has won its three games with Jacksonville, and
quarterback Jeff Blake has the Bengals on a 4-1 run. Jaguars
quarterback Mark Brunell will face cornerback Ashley Ambrose,
the league leader with eight interceptions.

For Indianapolis to stay in the playoff hunt, it has to beat
Buffalo, which won the teams' first matchup in overtime. To
knock off the Bills, winners of four games in a row, the Colts
need to score 20 or more points. They're 5-0 when that happens.