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Original Issue

Cards Gone Wild

After an epic playoff throwdown, Kurt Warner and crew look ahead to the Saints. But can Arizona stop the pass?

The final play, Karlos Dansby's 17-yard fumble return in overtime, brought the Packers to their knees and Michael Adams to tears. Throughout the second half of Sunday's NFC wild-card game at University of Phoenix Stadium, Adams, the Cardinals' third-year nickelback, had been victimized by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, so when Adams blitzed around the right of the Packers' line three plays into the extra period, he seized the opportunity for payback. As he went for the sack of Rodgers, Adams knocked the ball from the quarterback's hand. Dansby scooped it out of the air and raced into the end zone for a 51--45 Cardinals victory that was as breathtaking for onlookers as it was exhausting for the players. Teammates mobbed the Pro Bowl linebacker in the end zone, while Adams kneeled nearby, bawling in joy and relief.

In any other game, that decisive play would go down as the signature moment. But decades from now it will be little more than a footnote to what was arguably the greatest quarterback duel in playoff history—an epic in which Rodgers and Kurt Warner combined for 801 passing yards and nine touchdowns, with only one interception between them. The game's 96 points and 62 first downs were playoff records.

When Warner was done celebrating on the field with his teammates, he walked to the stands behind the Arizona bench to visit with family and friends, as is his custom. But then the 38-year-old quarterback with the gimpy hip and the silky delivery parted from his usual script: He took an abbreviated victory lap, then turned to wave at what remained of the sellout crowd. Time will tell if the gesture was a thank you or a goodbye.

Warner has contemplated retiring after each of the past two seasons, but this is the first time the organization genuinely fears that the 12-year veteran might walk away. He sustained a concussion in mid-November—it was at least the fifth of his career—and while sidelined spoke of the importance of life after football.

If Sunday turned out to be the final home game in a career that includes three Super Bowl appearances, as well as Super Bowl and league MVP awards, Warner gave his red-clad fans a reason to laminate their tickets. Facing a defense that ranked second overall and first in interceptions, he finished 29 of 33 for 379 yards and five touchdowns, with no turnovers. His passer rating for the game, 154.1, was the second best in postseason history. It was the second time in Warner's career that he finished a game with more touchdown passes than incompletions, the other being in 1999 with St. Louis, when he was 20 of 23 with five scores against the 49ers.

"He's a Hall of Fame quarterback," Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson said. "You don't play with guys like that too often. You can only imagine when you look back on your life and say that you played with Kurt Warner, the things he was able to do were unbelievable."

Rodgers, a fifth-year pro who is quickly establishing himself as one of the game's elite quarterbacks, was every bit as brilliant as the age-defying Warner, throwing for 304 yards and all four of his touchdowns in the second half—and he would have had the game winner if, on the first play of overtime, he'd been able to hit Greg Jennings breaking past deep safety Antrel Rolle. "If he had completed that ball to Greg, I would have pulled my hair out," said Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who had six catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns.

Still, Rodgers's performance will give the Cardinals reason for serious concern as they head into their matchup with the top-seeded Saints and their No. 1--ranked offense. Drew Brees threw for a league-high 34 touchdowns in the regular season and possesses a stable of receivers arguably as deep as that of the Packers. He also could have some valuable perspective on how to attack the Cardinals should he make a call to Rodgers, one of his off-season workout partners.

In explaining their struggles against the Packers, Arizona defenders pointed to assignment breakdowns, miscommunication and a hot quarterback. There also was good game-planning on Green Bay's part. The Packers had roughed up Adams the previous week in their 33--7 victory (Arizona rested most of its starters, since its playoff seed had already been set), and they sought to exploit that weak link again. Adams admitted to praying to God throughout Sunday's game "for a fighting chance." He and the Cardinals will need more than prayers—they'll have to solve those miscommunication and assignment issues—if they're to return to the conference final for the second time in as many years.

Would it be Warner's last? "Everybody relax," the quarterback said when asked about the significance of his victory lap. "That was my way of saying thanks to the fans because we're not coming back here this year [for the playoffs]. I appreciate their impact and what they've done for us."

Warner versus Brees in the Superdome on Saturday. Could it be two quarterback classics in as many weeks?


Photographs by JOHN BIEVER

RED-HANDED LaRod Stephens-Howling (left) was on the receiving end of one of the 29 completions by the ageless Warner (right).



SHOWSTOPPER Adams, who earned redemption with his overtime hit on Rodgers, will have his hands full again when he faces the high-flying Saints.