- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 3, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. | One staged a remarkable one-season turnaround with a smooth, efficient rookie at the controls. The other emerged from a legacy of losing behind the ageless arm of a gunslinging veteran.

The Atlanta Falcons vs. the Arizona Cardinals was not exactly a predictable playoff pairing when the season began. Their wild card matchup Saturday is yet another example of the parity that prevails in the NFL.

“That’s why the NFL is the most popular spectator sport there is,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “It’s such a fun game, and it’s such a great game to be around. Each year is a new year and you can’t really go by what the prognosticators say.”

The Falcons (11-5) flew to Phoenix on Thursday to give them a day to get acclimated to the desert. It’s the first time all season that Atlanta has not had a full week between games.

“The only thing that concerns us a bit is the recovery time,” Smith said. “Usually our players have two days off after a game before they come out on the field.”

Arizona (9-7) had to make a quick turnaround twice in November. The first went well, the second not so well. The Cardinals won a Monday night game against San Francisco, then won at Seattle the following Sunday. But they lost at home to the New York Giants on a Sunday, then were blown out at Philadelphia on Thanksgiving night.

The Falcons made a quick recovery from a 4-12 finish last season darkened by the legal troubles of Michael Vick and made worse by the abrupt resignation of coach Bobby Petrino.

General manager Thomas Dimitroff hired Smith, and the two set about transforming the downtrodden, dispirited team.

“When Thomas hired me, the first step in the process was we had to make some big decisions on the people we had on our football team,” Smith said. “We let some very good players and some good men go. But we needed to move in a different direction.”

The biggest need was at quarterback, and the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan out of Boston College in the first round. They could hardly have known how well that would go. Ryan turned in one of the best seasons ever by a rookie, earning him the AP offensive rookie of the year award and admiration of his peers.

“You’ve got to be really impressed, especially in this day and age,” Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner said. “It’s a whole different ballgame, picking up the speed, understanding what’s going on, understanding your offense, coming into a completely new offense, understanding that and then understanding what the defense is doing.”

Atlanta’s other big need was at running back, and the Falcons signed free agent Michael Turner to fill that role. He finished as the NFL’s No. 2 rusher, behind only Adrian Peterson.

“Jerious Norwood is a great change-up, so we’ve got two guys who we feel can run the ball,” Smith said. “When you are able to run the football, when people have to commit to stop the run, then … it makes it, I think, a little bit easier to throw the football.”

The Cardinals know all about throwing the football, usually without the help of any kind of ground game. Arizona was second in passing in the NFL and last in rushing.

The Cardinals have three receivers - Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston - who topped 1,000 yards receiving. Fitzgerald and Boldin are going to the Pro Bowl.

The 37-year-old Warner, selected to the Pro Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season, established six franchise records, including 30 touchdown passes.

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