AS HE was making his way out of the jubilant visitors' locker room after a 33--13 victory over heavily favored Carolina in Charlotte last Saturday night, Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett spotted wideout Larry Fitzgerald doing a radio interview near the exit. Dockett hit the brakes on his rolling suitcase, waited for Fitzgerald to finish, then patted the fifth-year receiver on the back. When Fitzgerald turned around, Dockett embraced him and thanked him for coming up so big—eight catches, 166 yards, one touchdown—on a night when fellow Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin was sidelined with a hamstring injury. "No, man," Fitzgerald responded. "Thank you."
Two weeks ago no one could have imagined those words being spoken to an Arizona defender. F you, maybe. After a 7--3 start the Cardinals had lost four of their final six games to end the regular season and surrendered at least 35 points in each of the defeats; the Eagles scored 48 on them on Thanksgiving, the Patriots 47 in Week 16. In three of those games the Cardinals allowed at least 183 rushing yards, with the Vikings running over them for a season-high 239.
People were calling them the biggest playoff frauds in recent history. Yes, the Cardinals were NFC West champs. The offense was solid with Kurt Warner, a two-time league MVP, at quarterback, and three 1,000-yard receivers in Fitzgerald, Boldin and second-year man Steve Breaston. But by season's end there was no sign of the defensive backbone that had helped Arizona get off to such a strong start.
Now that same unit is flexing its muscles. In two playoff games the Cardinals' defense has created nine turnovers, including five interceptions and a fumble recovery on Saturday night that led to 23 points. That kind of opportunistic, ball hawking D is a big reason why the Cards are one win from advancing to the first Super Bowl in franchise history (including its days in St. Louis). And when the Eagles line up at University of Phoenix Stadium this Sunday, they'll face a Cardinals team quite different from the one they clobbered on Thanksgiving. That club lost its focus after virtually locking up its division two weeks earlier. Arizona was also operating on a short week and lacked a credible running game, with Edgerrin James on the bench.
"Mentally we eased up a little bit because we had clinched so early," defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "When you combine that with the fact that we were playing teams that really needed the wins to get into the playoffs, things got ugly.
"Once we got our focus back and realized what we were playing for, guys accepted the challenge. There was so much negative stuff being said about us that it was almost like we didn't belong in the playoffs, like we were the uninvited guests. We took the attitude of, well, let's go crash the party."
And the opposing backfield. In the wild-card round Arizona limited Atlanta's No. 2--ranked rushing attack to 60 yards on 24 carries, and on Saturday they held Carolina's third-ranked running game to 75 yards on 15 rushes. The Panthers scored on their first drive, but the Double Trouble tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for just 34 yards on 12 carries the rest of way.
Two days before the win over Atlanta, Dockett stood outside the practice facility and recounted how he had tears in his eyes as he drove to work because he was so excited over the first playoff game in his five-year career. "We have gotten ourselves ready," Dockett said. "I'm talking about D-line, linebackers, secondary—staying after practice 30 minutes, looking at tape at home, coming back the next day with questions, going over adjustments, repeating certain plays with 'what ifs?' We're ready, man."
The Cardinals are playing with a confidence that belies their inexperience and a resolve they've never demonstrated before. Against Atlanta, for instance, they trailed 17--14 at the half. The Falcons had the ball to open the third quarter, and the sense was that the Cardinals would fold completely if Atlanta got a quick score. Instead, on the second play of the half, Dockett shot through a gap and forced a fumble. Safety Antrel Rolle grabbed the ball out of the air and took it back all the way to give Arizona a lead it would never relinquish.
When Carolina drove the field in five plays and scored on its first possession last Saturday, the sellout home crowd cheered as if the game were over. But the Cardinals again showed a resilience previously foreign to them. The Arizona defense forced a three-and-out on the Panthers' next possession, and Fitzgerald's leaping 41-yard catch later set up a Warner to Tim Hightower touchdown pass. The rout was on, and by halftime the Cards led 27--7.
The only tangible change Arizona has made in the playoffs is to match up rookie corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the opponent's top receiver. He's looked like a seasoned vet, with two interceptions and a pass breakup that resulted in another pick. Beyond that, the adjustments have taken place between the ears rather than between the sidelines.
"We had a mental collapse at the end of the year," safety Adrian Wilson said. "When something started going bad, it just rolled downhill. Over the past month we've worked hard to correct the mistakes we made in those games. It was all about being mentally ready to play. Now we're just going to stay humble and hope people keep doubting us. We like it that way."
SEEING RED Calais Campbell (93) and the D jumped all over Delhomme, forcing him into six costly turnovers.
SIMON BRUTY (FITZGERALD)
STRETCHED THIN With Boldin out hurt, Fitzgerald picked up the slack with eight catches for 166 yards.