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Cardinals' flight plan will lead to Super showdown

DOWN and out for decades, the Arizona Cardinals have turned a bad joke into a Super Bowl-bound team.

Yes, the Cardinals, historically among the most dysfunctional franchises, are heading for the championship game in Tampa.

Capitalizing on Larry?Fitzgerald's three first-half touchdown receptions, then coolly marching downfield to Kurt?Warner's eight-yard scoring pass to rookie Tim?Hightower with 2:53 left, they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 32-25 on Sunday for the NFC championship in Glendale, Arizona.

"I want to say Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence," a jubilant Warner said. "The Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. How about it?"

Arizona (12-7) will face AFC champion Pittsburgh on February 1 in Tampa for the NFL title. The Steelers beat Baltimore.

"To make it to the Super Bowl and to have a chance, an opportunity to win it, you relish those moments in your career," said safety Adrian?Wilson, the longest-tenured Cardinal. "This being my eighth year, and to be in this organization at this time with these players and these coaches, it's a great moment."

A stunning moment that nearly didn't happen. Donovan?McNabb was superb in leading Philadelphia's second-half rally from 18 points down to a 25-24 lead, but after Hightower's score, he misfired from midfield four times in the final moments.

If the Cardinals, the first No. 4 seed to host a conference championship game, were supposed to be thunderstruck by their surroundings, they instead responded like playoff veterans.

Sure, they blew that 24-6 halftime lead. But then the 37-year-old Warner, a Super Bowl MVP from almost a decade ago with the St Louis Rams, engineered a precise, 72-yard drive to win it with his fourth touchdown pass of the day.

He finished the comeback with the eight-yard pass to Hightower, then hit Ben?Patrick for the two-point conversion.

"The demeanor in the huddle didn't change at all," Fitzgerald said. "The guys were focused and ready to go. You could see the look in guys' eyes. Nobody wanted to be the guy who let this team down. Everybody did their job when we needed them to do it."

But the key was the unstoppable Fitzgerald, who had nine receptions for 152 yards, including two big catches on the decisive drive. The All-Pro set a single post-season record with 419 yards receiving, surpassing the great Jerry?Rice. And Fitzgerald has one more game to go - the Super Bowl.

Can you imagine?


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