Larry Fitzgerald (Jeff Gross/Getty)
The NFL Wild Card weekend lived up to its name, when the Arizona Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Falcons 30-24. The victory gave the country a taste of what Cardinals football can look like. The Cardinals were in typical form with superstar performances from Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Edgerrin James. But the real fun was in the Cardinals’ defensive efforts.
The Cardinals snapped a 10-year losing streak, when they defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 30-24, on Saturday at home. The Cardinals knew they could take care of the first game, but history tried to prove them wrong.
Arizona moves into the NFC Divisional Round of playoffs, where the Carolina Panthers or the New York Giants will play host to the Cardinals. The Cardinals would like to take their chances with the Panthers who they narrowly lost to, 27-23, in week eight at Carolina. The Cardinals fell to the Giants at home in week 12, 37-29.
The half glass full approach is it’s hard to beat a team twice in one season. For the pessimists, Carolina and New York have the knowledge that it can put away Arizona from recent experience.
If the Cardinals play anything like they did on Saturday, they should be able to give either team a run for their money. The Cardinals defense was outstanding.
The unit stalled RB Michael Turner to just 42 yards, which matched his worst performance of the season. In week two, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kept him to 42 yards as well.
The defensive corps also accounted for two interceptions, one from Ralph Brown and the other from Antrel Rolle. Brown’s turnover gave the Cardinals a second chance in the first quarter. After going three and out on their opening drive, Brown put the football back in the hands of Warner.
Arizona demonstrated an characteristic pass-rush ratio that made Edgerrin James look like James from yesteryear. His ground game set up the pass. James registered 21 yards on three carries, which allowed Warner to go deep for Larry Fitzgerald who executed on the other end. He fought off double coverage and came down with the football for the game’s opening score, 7-0.
After a Falcons’ field goal, it was Anquan Boldin’s turn to showoff. He officially changed his middle name to “yards after the catch” when he caught a short pass from Warner and ran it up the flanks for a 71-yard touchdown to offset the Falcons’ earlier field goal, 14-3.
Boldin appeared to pull a hamstring on the sprint and rested for the rest of the game.
The Cardinals would show its first signs of dismay when they allowed Michael Turner to run into the end zone unscathed, 14-10. The Falcons would go on to take the lead with a 2-yard pass to tight end Justin Peellee. The 17-14 score would account for the final first half margin.
But Antrel Rolle would get the Cardinals back in the game in no time. Matt Ryan fumbled thanks to pressure from Darnell Dockett. Rolle would pick off the fumble in the air and run the ball in 27 yards for the lead, 21-17.
The Cardinals put James back to work in the third quarter, after not touching the ball since the opening 15 minutes. James was playing for another postseason game and likely a contract elsewhere, he finished the day with 73 yards. James would go on to setup protégé Tim Hightower for the touchdown, 28-17.
Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan isn’t use to playing from behind, and the Cardinals defense didn’t help the matter. When Ryan went to the fence for Roddy White, the Cardinals first round pick Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie use his speed to be there for the close up instead. The interception marked Rodgers-Cromartie’s first postseason pick of his young career and fifth of 2008.
Rodgers-Cromartie was outstanding on Saturday, leading the team in tackles (10 total tackles). He’s developed into his starting role nicely.
In the fourth quarter, the Cardinals’ Antonio Smith added insult to injury. He sacked Ryan in the end zone for the safety, 30-17.
The Falcons would make it a one possession game with a Ryan pass to White, 30-24.
DE Bertrand Berry
The Cardinals midseason acquire, Stephen Spach, would get a huge first down for the Cardinals to put them into the two minute warning. The Falcons were out of timeouts, so down Warner’s knee went.
Heart of the Defense
Bertrand Berry, Smith and Chike Okeafor all earned sacks on Saturday. Berry was an exceptional substitution for the injured Travis LaBoy. Berry stuffed the run and pass rushed with the best of them.
Berry lost his starting role to LaBoy earlier in the year, but continues to impress in his 11-year career. He was the Cardinals biggest supporter. Berry believed so much in what the Cardinals defense was doing he took a pay cut in order to stay on the team and be part of the change in the desert.
Turner will likely never want to see Karlos Dansby ever again either. Dansby was a force.