- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 4, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. | It took 61 years and two relocations, but the Cardinals finally won a home playoff game Saturday.

Arizona dispatched the Atlanta Falcons 30-24 in the NFC wild card round at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“This is absolutely huge for this franchise - laughing stock no more,” defensive end Chike Okeafor said. “We’ve been making strides all along, but this has us near the top of a huge mountain that hasn’t been scaled ever before.”

A safety with 12:44 remaining in the fourth quarter gave Arizona a 30-17 lead; even a tortured franchise like Arizona wouldn’t fumble away a win in that scenario. It didn’t come without drama, though; Atlanta closed within 30-24 with 4:19 remaining on Roddy White’s 5-yard touchdown reception from rookie Matt Ryan.

But Arizona, led by two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner, managed to run out the clock via the passing game. Warner completed passes to Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Stephen Spach for first downs, the last of which went for 23 yards on third-and-16, extending Arizona’s final drive before Warner kneeled to kill the clock.

“That was basically [the coaching staff] saying we don’t want them to have another chance,” Warner said. “We wanted to finish on our side of the ball.”

The Cardinals had largely been cast aside as a one-and-done team, even called the worst playoff team in history, because of a late-season slide after clinching their first division title since 1975. After losing four of six to end the regular season, they got used to those harsh words.

“It’s hard not to see and hear it when you are one of four games and everyone is taking a shot at you,” second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “I understand that we didn’t play well at the end of the season, but we did enough to win our division.”

The Cardinals responded - not only to the name-calling, but to the ugly finish to the first half. Arizona grabbed a 14-3 lead on two long touchdown passes from Warner to Fitzgerald (six catches for 101 yards) and Anquan Boldin (two for 72), but Atlanta entered halftime with a 17-14 lead after Warner’s interception with 2:10 remaining gave Atlanta good field position and 14 points in the final three minutes.

“The thing that we did that I was most proud of is we responded,” Whisenhunt said. “The guys weren’t down in the locker room. They said they were going to come out and make a play to get it back.”

The Cardinals’ defense made it happen. It came in the form of a muffed handoff between Ryan and running back Michael Turner, with Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett disrupting the play. Arizona safety Antrel Rolle caught the ball in mid-air and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown and a 21-17 lead.

“That is a big, big play in a football game,” Atlanta first-year coach Mike Smith said.

The Cardinals’ much-maligned defense held the NFL’s second-best rushing offense to 60 yards. Turner had just 42 yards on 18 carries, partly because Atlanta had to pass to try to catch up.

“There was a lot of speculation about us being able to stop the run,” safety Adrian Wilson said. “I think it was us not being disciplined, but I think we did a great job today.”

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