Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Endgame 2009: Arizona Cardinals

"The difference with me is when I do what I do I do it like I'm doing it for TV."

If the Cardinals were a song…

Collapsing at Your Doorstep - Air France

In a playoff field full of angry, harsh edges, the Cardinals are the only team that still seems capable of winning with ethereal flair. Sure, there’s not a lot of substance underneath, but since when was floating on the air supposed to rely of substance?

Who are the Cardinals?

Long time readers of the blog may know that I used to write for the WWE. Besides being the high point of what I’m sure will be an utterly disappointing “career” (cashing Google checks = legitimacy!) as a writer, it is easily the most talked about notch on my resume (“internet writer” doesn’t make anybody tingle, surprisingly). Usually, I like to summarize the experience using the story about the time I rode in a limo with Vince McMahon, Chairman of the WWE and probably the most important figure in professional wrestling history. As we rode to the airport following a television taping, Mr. McMahon was going over the show in great detail, imparting years of his own personal experience with “the business” to every aspect of what he liked and disliked about the show. What I always tell people is that regardless of how narrow the field is, there’s something remarkable about observing someone who is unquestionably the best at what they do. That kind singular greatness is special.

I feel the same way watching the Cardinals aerial offense. Whether that narrow, singular focus is going to be significant enough to carry this team to the promised land (gotta make at least one biblical reference for a Kurt Warner team) remains to be seen, but it has me excited for this team to have made it to the divisional playoffs.

Faith in these Arizona Cardinals has to be rooted in the one aspect of the game where they’ve proven themselves to be better than anybody else, because it’s hard to find comfort in any of the more typical sources of confidence. Sure, they won their division and hosted a playoff game for the first time in the lives of many of their fans, but let’s be honest, that stumble to the finish line (in which they lost 4 of 6) and Kurt Warner reverting to fumbly wumblies of years past wasn’t making anyone feel safe. All of this led to the Falcons being the clear favorites to stomp the Cardinals out of the playoffs and establish the case for the playoff system being changed once and for all. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, everything clicked for Arizona, and it all traced back to the pass attack. Kurt Warner had plenty of time to stretch the field, Larry Fitzgerald was attacking the ball as only he can, and Boldin even found a way to sneak under the defense like he has all season and punish them after the catch. This let the bit players (Breaston, Spach, Urban…) wreak havoc in the middle of the field, and finally gave Edge the space to move in the box that he hadn’t really been able to find all season, running (justifiably) like a man with everything to prove.

I ask you: Can you bet against THAT Arizona Cardinals team?

The Cardinals aren’t just the best pass attack left in the playoffs; they’re almost 50 yards per game better than the next closest competition (Philly). They boast two Pro Bowl receivers and a quarterback who still has some juice in the tank and the hardware (2X MVP, Super Bowl ring) to show he knows what to do with it. There isn’t a double team in the league that can stop Larry Fitzgerald from getting a well thrown pass when he’s given the opportunity to use his body and agility to create space out of nowhere, expanding the easel of his work beyond where we thought it ended. The Bionic Receiver Anquan Boldin is playing fearlessly after his injury, making catches underneath defense and sneaking behind them before anyone can explain how he can do all that with metal in his face. Kurt Warner, after being tossed aside at the start of the offseason, turned back the clock for one more great year, and has played accordingly, displaying a trust in his receivers that seems simple, but is actually the product of years of studying what an effective pass attack can be. Forget Mike Martz; this is the REAL Greatest Show on Turf sequel.

Of course, that might not be enough, especially in an NFC field with so many scary pass rushes, but against the general wisdom that brutality wins in the playoffs, the Cards have already proven once that a touch of grace can carry a team to victory. If Edge is as fresh as he looked last week, and Warner can avoid mistakes, this team is going to be hard to stop, because while they can’t do everything well, they may not need to. Why waste time trying to answer questions that may not need to be asked? Instead, they may just fall back on the one shining truth that got them this far (LARRY FITZGERALD AND ANQUAN BOLDIN ARE AWESOME) and dare teams to stop them. Throw in a chippy defense, and maybe, just maybe, we can get away with believing in a team without fully understanding how they’ll fill the gaps in our faith (defense? rush attack?). If that isn’t faith, what is?

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