GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Arizona Cardinals didn't open their retractable roof yesterday.
They shattered their glass ceiling.
This time, the punch line punched back.
"We believe in ourselves, and we believe in each other, so really it doesn't matter what other people believe," Cardinals defensive end Bertrand Berry said. "They've all got to come see us in Tampa. Period."
For the Cardinals, yesterday didn't end with a period but an exclamation point. The franchise that before this season had not hosted a playoff game since 1947 proved it was no fluke it got this far. The Cardinals beat the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Eagles in consecutive weeks, setting the stage for the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat the Ravens, 23-14, last night for the AFC title.
Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was the game's standout with three touchdowns, but it was the Cardinals' 32nd-ranked ground game that clinched the victory. Rookie Tim Hightower scored on an 8-yard run with 2:53 remaining. That, coupled with a two-point conversion, provided the margin of victory.
That touchdown - Arizona's only points of the second half - blunted a comeback by Philadelphia, which scored three touchdowns over a 10-minute span to claw its way back into a game that had gotten away from the team.
That set up the dramatic clinching drive, which came against the backdrop of a stadium painted red with Cardinals jerseys and set into motion by tens of thousands of swirling white towels.
"Whenever you get to play at home in a game of this magnitude, the fans play an important role in it," Arizona safety Adrian Wilson said. "I think the home-field advantage was really there."
The last time these teams met, Thanksgiving night, the Eagles cruised, 48-20. If that wasn't fresh in the minds of the Cardinals last week, coach Ken Whisenhunt made sure to remind them of it in his Saturday night talk with the players.
"He said, 'Remember that feeling on Thanksgiving, when they embarrassed us on national TV? Remember that,' " cornerback Ralph Brown said. "And we did going into this game. We used it as fuel."
The Cardinals (12-7) had plenty of fuel, and some excellent coaching to go along with it. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley had a masterful game plan that created all sorts of mismatches for Fitzgerald, who caught nine passes for 152 yards with touchdowns of 9, 62 and 1 yards.
Most memorable of those was the longest: a pitch to running back J.J. Arrington, who threw back to quarterback Kurt Warner, who hit Fitzgerald streaking down the middle, one-on-one with backup safety Quintin Demps. No contest: Demps fell down, Fitzgerald scored.
At that point, everything seemed to be going right for the Cardinals. But things started to slip away from them in the third quarter, when they had 8 yards of offense and zero first downs in two possessions.
The Cardinals responded with a 14-play touchdown drive to reclaim the lead, and, ultimately, the game. Warner finished with brilliant numbers: 21-for-28 for 279 yards and four touchdowns.
Said Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who threw for three touchdowns with an interception: "To end this way, it's tough, when you're that close to making it to the Super Bowl. This team has really pulled together, and it was that type of nucleus you definitely want."
But this day belonged to the Cardinals.
As giant blowers pumped plumes of silver and red confetti into the air, the Arizona players brought their families onto the field.
In the stands, a fan held a sign that harked back to a sadder day, a twist on a well-worn phrase uttered by then-coach Dennis Green after a bitter loss.
It read: "The Cardinals are who nobody thought we were."
STEELERS (14-4) @ CARDINALS (12-7)
Feb. 1, 6:30 p.m. (approximate)
TV: Chs. 11, 4
by 6 1/2