Ken Whisenhunt (Jeff Gross/Getty)
The Arizona Cardinals kicked off the playoffs in style, defeating the Atlanta Falcons en route to their first postseason win since 1998. Despite going into halftime with a 17-14 deficit, the Cardinals’ defense rose the occasion as they limited Atlanta to just seven second-half points. Brad Wilbricht breaks down the victory and wraps up the action from University of Phoenix Stadium.
While the Arizona offense was its usual self, the Cardinals’ defense was the story on Saturday as they limited Atlanta to just 250 yards of total offense and forced three turnovers. Arizona held Falcons RB Michael Turner, the NFL’s second leading rusher, to only 42 yards on 18 carries. Turner’s 42 yards tied his lowest output of the season as he compiled the same number against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 2.
In addition to slowing down Turner, the Cardinals kept Atlanta QB Matt Ryan in check for most of the afternoon. Ryan finished 26-of-40 for 199 yards and tossed two touchdowns along with a pair of interceptions. Arizona’s pass rush harassed Ryan from start to finish, sacking him three times and forcing a safety during fourth quarter action.
Rookie CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie continues to excel and made several big plays against the Falcons’ offense. Rodgers-Cromartie led the Cardinals with 10 tackles and added an interception. Following 14 unanswered points by Atlanta, FS Antrel Rolle returned a fumble 27 yards for a score less than a minute into the second half. Rolle’s touchdown changed the momentum of the game and led to 16 straight points by Arizona.
The Cardinals’ running game has struggled for the majority of the season, but provided the Arizona offense with adequate balance throughout the game. Veteran RB Edgerrin James received the bulk of the carries for the second consecutive week and led the team with 16 carries for 73 yards. Meanwhile, Rookie RB Tim Hightower reverted back to his role as a goal-line specialist and responded with 23 yards rushing and a touchdown.
RB Tim Hightower
Arizona QB Kurt Warner completed 19-of-32 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns. He was intercepted once as a pass intended for WR Jerheme Urban was tipped in the air and picked off by Atlanta CB Chevis Jackson. Warner found WR Larry Fitzgerald early in the first quarter for a 42-yard touchdown pass and hooked up with WR Anquan Boldin on a 71-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter.
Fitzgerald led Arizona’s receiving corps with six catches for 101 yards and a score. Boldin racked up 71 yards and a touchdown on two catches but left the game with a hamstring injury and did not return. WR Steve Breaston also contributed with three receptions for 39 yards and relative unknown TE Stephen Spach chipped in with three grabs for 34 yards. Spach managed only two catches for 15 yards during the regular season, but sealed the Cardinals’ victory with a late third down conversion.
Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s NFC Wild Card matchup between the Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles, Arizona will see a familiar face next week. The Cardinals squared off against the Carolina Panthers and New York Giants during the regular season but fell short on each occasion. Arizona will pack its bags for New York if the Vikings prevail while they’ll be headed back to Carolina if the Eagles come out on top.
Brad Wilbricht can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org