Monday, January 19, 2009

Cardinals make pundits appear, well, stupid

ON FOOTBALL

In case you've been shacked up for the last 30-plus hours, the Arizona Cardinals are headed to the Super Bowl.

OK, let me repeat myself: The Arizona Cardinals — that team that pundits wrote off as "done" in late December; that team that pundits said had "no chance" at winning a playoff game; that team that pundits labeled "soft" — are headed to the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals will take on the mighty, tradition-filled Pittsburgh Steelers. They will, undoubtedly, be a big underdog come Feb. 1. People in the media will say things like, "The Steelers are simply too physical, too strong, too tough for them." And on goes the blabber machine...

Let me rewind the clock a mere four weeks. On Sunday, Dec. 21, the Cardinals played the New England Patriots. Well, that's a nice way to put it. In truth, the Cardinals let the Patriots bully them all over the snow-covered field in Foxboro, Mass.

The result was an embarrassing 47-7 spanking, which amounted to Arizona's fourth loss in five games. The Cardinals had clinched the anemic NFC West a couple weeks earlier, but after the debacle at New England close to no one considered Arizona a playoff team.

And with good reason. Because that Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals played more like an 0-16 team (no more Lions references, I promise). If Arizona played close to as bad as it did against the Pats in January, its season would end rather quickly — and in ugly, sobering fashion.

But here's the thing, which the mainstream media often seems to ignore. A team should never — ever — be judged on one game, or even three games, during a 16-game season. There's a reason the Cardinals won nine regular-season games. There's a reason they defeated a super-talented Cowboys team and won at Seattle, which is never an easy place to play regardless of how bad the Seahawks are.

And, most important, they made the playoffs. The postseason, people should know by now, is a completely different season. Records should be thrown out the window come January; head-to-head results from November don't matter (just ask the bitter Eagles, who destroyed Arizona on Thanksgiving).

The evidence is glaring. Just look at two of the three Super Bowl champions: Last season, the Giants barely made the playoffs as the fifth seed and won three road playoff games; In 2005, the Steelers were the sixth seed and had to win three road games.

Even the 2006 Colts had to win three playoff games, including a road game in freezing Baltimore, and overcome mighty New England in the AFC title game to reach and win the Super Bowl.

The point is that no team can be ruled out. Not even the Cardinals. Did I think I'd see them in the Super Bowl three weeks ago? Of course not. But I certainly wasn't ruling them out at home against a young, inexperienced Falcons team. And once they built up momentum from that game, it carried over the next weekend in Carolina and then Sunday against the Eagles.

Each week, they were doubted. The "experts" picked the other team, almost unanimously. The Cardinals proved just about everyone wrong. Now those experts are lauding them, throwing out all sorts of platitudes when praising the team they thought had no chance to win a single playoff game a few weeks ago.

I know this sounds simplistic, but when a pair of teams full of players who are the best at what they do meet — anything can happen. Any group of top-notch football players and coaches, with the right mindset and confidence, can win on Any Given Sunday.

So go ahead, place your bets with the Steelers. Call that defense impenetrable. Heck, I'll probably pick them to win too.

But I won't be the least surprised, shocked or amazed if the Cardinals pull off the upset and win their first Super Bowl.

It'd be an appropriate ending to what should be called their "Prove All Those Doubters Wrong" playoff run.

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