- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

TEMPE, Ariz. | Just Do It? How about Just Get In, then just do it?

The key to the NFL playoffs this decade has been to simply qualify. After that, even the unthinkable - Cardinals vs. Eagles for the NFC championship - becomes possible.

At the outset of the millennium, the Baltimore Ravens went from wild card to Super Bowl champions. Five years later, the Pittsburgh Steelers became the first No. 6 seed to win it all; coincidentally, those teams meet Sunday for the AFC title after Arizona and Philadelphia settle the NFC crown.

Last season, the New York Giants rode their road prowess, adding three road victories in the playoffs as a No. 5 seed to seven straight road wins during the regular season, then upsetting unbeaten New England in the Super Bowl.

And now, the sixth-seeded Eagles and the No. 4 Cardinals, who won the NFL’s weakest division, are one step from the big game. When they meet Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, it will be the first NFC title matchup of nine-win teams from the regular season.

So, just get in.

“Teams have their ups and downs,” said cornerback Rod Hood, now with the Cardinals and a Super Bowl participant with the Eagles in January 2005, when they lost to New England. “So for them to bounce back … Philly never had a problem with talent or schemewise. They had their ups and downs and I think went through a down period there, but now they’re playing their best games.”

In other words, get in and get going, which the Eagles (11-6-1) have done in wins at Minnesota and at the Meadowlands against the defending champion Giants.

That’s also what the Cardinals have managed. They clinched the NFC West before any other team had secured a division title. But there were a series of stinkers along the way. After assuring their playoff spot, the Cardinals barely showed up in losses to the Vikings and Patriots.

Few thought they had gotten back on track with their victory over Seattle in the season finale; the Seahawks were awful this season, as was the entire division, against which Arizona went 6-0.

But they had, and emphatically proved that with playoff victories against Atlanta and at Carolina, improving to 11-7.

“I thought we had a good team this year, though obviously we did not play well at times; that has been well-documented,” said Ken Whisenhunt, who two years ago to the day was introduced as Cardinals coach. “It’s always a question of playing well at the right time.”

If you do that, well, the possibilities are endless, whether you are a wild card or a division winner that struggled to the finish line.

“I think it’s a tribute to the league,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said of the anybody-can-go-all-the-way theme being carried out again. “When commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue was in there, he was striving for parity, and that’s where commissioner Goodell took over and actually was part of as a [league] assistant, and that’s where the league is now.

“The neat part about it is it gives every city an opportunity to win football games, and that’s what this is all about. It’s two teams that kind of persevered through the season, through some ups and downs, and both of them are playing some halfway decent football and have an opportunity to play against each other in the championship game.”

Halfway decent, though, doesn’t shut down two of the league’s top running attacks, as the revitalized Arizona defense has done this month.

Halfway decent doesn’t defang powerful defenses the way Philadelphia has in the postseason.

“That is why it is going to be one of the biggest games of the whole playoffs,” Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “Nobody picked them to be here, nobody picked us to be here. Two underdogs playing well and shutting people out and making plays.

“It is not about who makes the biggest plays or the accolades and getting on TV. It is about the best team, about who can shut down their offense and who can play well on defense. It is all about the team.”

Do your jobs, get into the playoffs, and …

“Anything is possible once you get in the tournament,” Cardinals guard Reggie Wells said. “Anything.”

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