- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. | On a team full of options, from Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to Kurt Warner and Edgerrin James, Arizona Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley knew exactly who he wanted to use to clinch the franchise’s first Super Bowl berth.

Tim Hightower.

Twice Haley put the ball in Hightower’s hands, and twice the fifth-round pick who attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria delivered, helping the Cardinals defeat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 on Sunday in the NFC championship game at raucous University of Phoenix Stadium.

Hightower kept the winning drive alive with a 6-yard run on fourth-and-1 from midfield and then, on third-and-goal from the 8-yard line, caught a screen pass from Warner and scored the touchdown with 2:53 remaining.

“That’s what you want,” said Hightower, who played collegiately at Richmond. “You can’t ask for a better situation. That’s why you work hard and do extra training and make sacrifices - be ready when your number is called. When I heard the play call, I was honored the coach wanted to put the ball in my rookie hands.”

Said Haley: “Tim has shown a nose for the first-down [marker] and a nose for the end zone all year. It wasn’t hard at that point to give it to him.”

The Cardinals’ defense, which gave up three touchdown passes by Donovan McNabb in squandering a 24-6 lead, forced four misfires by McNabb from the Arizona 47-yard line, the last coming with 1:51 remaining, to secure the win.

Arizona became the first team to win only nine games in the regular season and reach the Super Bowl, where it will face Pittsburgh on Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla. The Cardinals again will be underdogs, just like they were to Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia in the NFC playoffs.

Warner was 21-for-28 for 279 yards and four touchdowns to clinch his third Super Bowl berth. Fitzgerald caught nine passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns, which tied an NFC title game record.

“Arizona Cardinals and the Super Bowl in the same sentence - I like the way that sounds,” Warner said. “Just amazing. Just a joy.”

Philadelphia failed in its attempt to reach a second Super Bowl in five seasons. The Eagles dropped to 1-4 in NFC title games under coach Andy Reid.

“You expect to move on, and when you don’t, it’s sudden and it hurts,” Reid said. “[The title game defeats] all hurt. You have different teams with different guys, but nobody feels good about any of them.”

Quarterback Donovan McNabb finished 28-for-47 for a playoff career-high 375 yards and three touchdowns - 6 and 31 yards to Brent Celek in the third quarter and a 62-yarder to DeSean Jackson that gave Philadelphia its first lead at 25-24 with 10:45 remaining.

Arizona’s first three second-half possessions ended with three punts, and it was outgained in the third quarter 165-5. All of the energy produced by a spectacular first half had evaporated when the Cardinals started at their own 28-yard line.

The crowd may have doubted, but could anyone blame them? This is a franchise with only two winning seasons since 1985, and its last postseason title of any kind came in 1948.

On the field and sideline, though, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt sensed urgency but not desperation.

“Philadelphia did a great job coming back, but it speaks a lot of our team and how we’ve grown up that we responded,” he said. “We preach the message of playing together, and somebody had to stand up and make plays. The biggest thing was not panicking.”

Whisenhunt’s critical decision on the winning drive came six plays in. The Cardinals faced fourth-and-1 from the Philadelphia 49 after James lost a yard and Hightower gained a yard.

“It wasn’t a hard call to go for it,” Whisenhunt said.

Hightower carried to the right behind fullback Terrelle Smith and bounced outside to gain 6 yards.

“The plays rarely go where [they’re] supposed to, so I had to read my fullback’s block, and it took me outside,” Hightower said. “I took a risk, but I have enough confidence that if [Smith] hits a guy, he’ll stay on them.”

Two plays later, Warner threw 18 yards to Fitzgerald. Six plays later, on third-and-goal from the 8, the Cardinals used a three-receiver, one-tight end, one-back formation.

At the snap, Hightower peeled left, spun around and caught Warner’s pass 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage and got blocks from guards Reggie Wells and Deuce Lutui on his way to the end zone for his 13th touchdown of the year.

“You obviously don’t want that to happen, especially after you put yourself in a position to win,” Reid said. “I expected the guys to step up, and they expected to step up.”

The touchdown helped Arizona avoid tying the record for the biggest blown lead in a conference championship game. New England lost an 18-point advantage two years ago in Indianapolis, and the Cardinals rolled to a similar lead thanks to Fitzgerald’s touchdown catches of 9, 62 and 1 yards.

Philadelphia mounted a comeback, but the Cardinals answered with the marathon-like drive of 7:52 to punch their ticket to Tampa.

“It feels great but not good enough,” Hightower said. “We’ve got one game coming up, and it’s the biggest game in all of our lives.”

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