- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 18, 2009

— On a team full of offensive stars, from receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Edgerrin James, the Arizona Cardinals went to an unlikely source to clinch their first Super Bowl berth.

Tim Hightower.

The rookie running back from Episcopal High School in Alexandria, a fifth-round draft pick last spring after playing for the University of Richmond, caught Warner’s screen pass and scored an 8-yard touchdown with 2:53 remaining Sunday to help the Cardinals top the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 in a wild NFC championship game.

The Cardinals won their first postseason title of any kind in the franchise’s 60 years and became the first team that won only nine games in the regular season to reach the Super Bowl. At that title game Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla., they will be decided underdogs against the winner of Sunday night’s game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

Hightower helped save the Cardinals from a record-tying meltdown. Arizona blew an 18-point lead and did next to nothing offensively in the second half before the game-winning drive.

Philadelphia fumbled on its opening second-half possession before scoring three consecutive touchdowns on three Donovan McNabb passes to take a 25-24 lead with 10:45 remaining.

But Arizona’s offense awoke at just the right time. The winning drive went 72 yards on 14 plays, and Hightower made the two biggest plays.

On fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 49, he gained 6 yards around the right side.

On third-and-goal from the Philadelphia 8, he caught Warner’s screen pass and scooted for the winning touchdown, breaking Stewart Bradley’s tackle.

Philadelphia started at its own 20 and quickly moved to the Arizona 47 on three completions, the last a 19-yard catch and run by DeMatha alum Brian Westbrook.

But four incompletions ended the Eagles’ hopes with 1:51 remaining. On fourth down, the Cardinals rushed seven, and under pressure, McNabb threw incomplete to falling Kevin Curtis at the 30-yard line.

Philadelphia lost for the fourth time in five NFC title games with Andy Reid as coach and McNabb as quarterback. McNabb finished 28-for-47 for 375 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald tied an NFC title game record with three touchdown catches and finished with nine receptions for 152 yards. Warner, the former St. Louis Rams quarterback, was 21-for-28 for 279 yards and four touchdowns and will lead a second franchise into the Super Bowl.

The Eagles’ rally started with McNabb scoring tosses of 6 and 31 yards to tight end Brent Celek.

The bomb came next. After rolling to his right and getting fine protection, McNabb threw deep to DeSean Jackson. The pass went through the hands of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Jackson - after a couple of bobbles - finally corralled it for a 62-yard touchdown.

Arizona’s first three second-half possessions ended in punts before the game-clinching march.

Philadelphia reached the end zone on its next possession to make it 24-13 with 4:08 remaining in the third quarter. McNabb connected with Curtis for a 50-yard completion on a third-and-18 play and then ran for 10 yards on a quarterback draw. Two plays later, he found Celek for a 6-yard touchdown.

Warner went down three times - twice after incompletions and on a sack - during Arizona’s next possession, and some of the energy drained from the raucous stadium.

The Eagles cut the lead to 24-19 with 49 seconds left in the third when McNabb found Celek for a 31-yard touchdown. Against a five-man rush, Celek easily beat Karlos Dansby down the right seam. But David Akers missed the extra point.

Philadelphia outgained Arizona 165-5 in the third quarter.

By halftime, Fitzgerald already had tied the NFC title game record for touchdowns and touchdown receptions with scoring catches of 9, 62 and 1 yards as the Cardinals sprinted to a 24-6 lead.

Arizona marched 80 yards on nine plays to open the game, capped by Warner’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Fitzgerald, who sprung free on a shallow crossing pattern, caught the pass and scored after Eagles safety Brian Dawkins bounced off him at the 2-yard line.

It was the first opening-quarter touchdown allowed by Philadelphia since Week 10.

Trailing 7-3, Akers’ 47-yard field goal was wide right, breaking a streak of 19 consecutive playoff makes.

On the next play, Warner pitched to J.J. Arrington, who threw back across the field to Warner. He heaved it to Fitzgerald, who beat safety Quintin Demps, catching the pass at the 13 and scoring the 62-yard touchdown.

Akers was back on the board on the ensuing drive, connecting from 33 yards to cut the lead to 14-6.

Fitzgerald’s third score of the first half capped a 9-play, 73-yard drive to make it 21-6 with 3:06 left in the first half. Fitzgerald was lined up wide right against Sheldon Brown and easily hauled in Warner’s lofted pass before Brown even turned around.

As the first half expired, Rackers hit from 49 yards for the 24-6 lead. A late hit on Warner and completions of 18, 14 and 13 yards set up the quick drive, which started at the Cardinals 16 and 91 seconds on the clock.

In the first half, Arizona outgained Philadelphia 260-170, and Warner posted a 156 passer rating (14-for-17 for 203 yards).

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