- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

Ken Whisenhunt earned his NFL coaching stripes working for Bill Cowher. And seeing his Arizona Cardinals in complete disarray following a second consecutive blowout defeat, he knew something Cowher-like needed to be done even though a playoff spot was secure and the final regular-season game was meaningless.

After an NFC West-clinching victory against St. Louis, the Cardinals lay down (almost literally) in the next two games, losing to Minnesota and New England by a combined 82-21.

Knowing a playoff run was unlikely if things didn’t improve quickly, Whisenhunt decided during the 11-hour journey from Providence, R.I., to Phoenix on Dec. 21 and 22 to ratchet up the intensity and urgency.

His message to his players: Play well against Seattle or you won’t play in the postseason.

“I was pretty angry about the way we played [in a 47-7 loss to the Patriots], and it certainly set the tempo in how I handled the team,” Whisenhunt said. “We had to establish something. We owed it to our fans, the city and our team to play better than we had played. Even though the Seattle game didn’t mean anything as far as getting into the playoffs, it was a barometer of who was going to show up the next week.

“Our team responded.”

Have they ever. The Cardinals defeated Seattle 34-21 — no shocker there. But then came the surprises — two playoff wins as underdogs against Atlanta and Carolina to set up Sunday’s NFC title game against Philadelphia at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Before those wins, the Cardinals were the only NFC franchise that hadn’t played in a conference title game since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. They haven’t won a championship of any kind since 1947, when they played in Chicago.

Any kind of postseason success seemed remote this year. Arizona played in an bad division, going 6-0 against San Francisco (7-9), Seattle (4-12) and St. Louis (2-14). The Cardinals’ only win against a playoff team was vs. Miami in Week 2.

And they hadn’t won on the East Coast — Arizona was 0-5 in that time zone. They weren’t good in December either — 2-2 with the aforementioned blowout defeats.

Then the epiphany.

“Somewhere that week, we found ourselves again,” Whisenhunt said.

Added defensive tackle Bryan Robinson: “I don’t know if the guys felt like, ‘Well, we’ll just save it for the playoffs,’ or ‘We need a couple of people to doubt us.’ Whatever it is, we figured out a way to get going at the right time.”

The Cardinals practiced in pads before the Seattle game, a rarity so late in the year for any team. The players responded to their second-year coach.

“You go how your leader goes,” quarterback Kurt Warner said. “He deserves a tremendous amount of credit, most importantly for bringing in a belief that we could accomplish something that had never happened before.”

The Patriots gained 514 yards against Arizona, including 183 on the ground. In the postseason, Atlanta and Carolina — the league’s second- and third-ranked rushing offenses — combined for only 135 yards on the ground.

On the journey back to Arizona after the New England game, which included a weather delay in Providence and a refueling stop in Minneapolis because of strong winds, Whisenhunt set the course with the hope his team could find the form that helped them start 6-3.

“I was angry and embarrassed but also concerned that we had played like that,” he said. “But I felt if we played better, we could win some [postseason] games.”

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