A proving ground in NFC
Cardinals, Eagles out to show they belong
GLENDALE, Ariz. - One by one, the players walked through the Arizona Cardinals' spacious locker room showing off their "Prove It" T-shirts. They might as well have been Philadelphia Eagles, too.
Is there any phrase more pertinent for today's NFC Championship game than the one adopted by the Cardinals? For both sides?
Consider, first, the NFC West champions.
The Cardinals haven't won a league title since 1947. They hadn't taken a division crown in 33 years before this season, when they managed it primarily by going 6-0 against weaklings San Francisco, Seattle, and St. Louis. In matchups with some of the NFL's bully boys - the Giants, Panthers, and Patriots - they lost by a combined 111-59.
Throw in a 48-20 Thanksgiving night roasting at Philadelphia and, well, "Prove It" indeed.
"It is a motivation thing," linebacker Karlos Dansby acknowledged. "We have to prove to the world that we can play at this level and play at a high level and try to win on this stage."
A stage few people outside of the Valley of the Sun imagined the Cardinals would reach this year. Even when, following an early clinching of the division, they turned around a December swoon by beating Seattle, a common description of the Cardinals was "the worst division winner in NFL history."
"It definitely put fuel to the fire," Dansby said. "We were motivated, and we had a lot of poise on the defense and on the offense."
Predicted to lose to Atlanta in the wild-card round, the Cardinals won, 30-24, outgaining the Falcons by 107 yards, getting three sacks, and forcing three turnovers.
Most observers shrugged.
But when they went to Carolina, where the Cardinals lost, 27-23, during the season, and romped, 33-13, getting six takeaways, well, they certainly had proved something.
"I think we have corrected some things, made less mistakes," said Kurt Warner, one of the few Cardinals with any knowledge of championship game surroundings. Warner, the 1999 and 2001 NFL Most Valuable Player with two trips to the Super Bowl and one win, has been a settling force for Arizona (11-7).
While the Cardinals were trying to get straightened out before the postseason, the Eagles were trying to figure out how to get into the playoffs. They needed plenty of help.
Yet the Eagles got that help. Sure, they had to recover from Donovan McNabb's benching in a lopsided loss at Baltimore. And from a tie at lowly Cincinnati.
But they also required cooperation from others.
So when the Week 17 requirements were for Tampa Bay to lose at home to the awful Raiders, and for Chicago to go to Houston and fall, and for the Eagles to beat the Cowboys in Philadelphia with the final wild-card berth on the line - Philly proved it.
Everything fell the Eagles' way. So much so that they drew a good matchup in the first round of the playoffs and won, 26-14, at Minnesota.
Even the next round wasn't fearful because the Eagles had won at the Giants Dec 7. Their 23-11 victory last Sunday was just as emphatic.
At 11-6-1, they had set up the first conference championship game between teams that won only nine times in the regular season.
"I think this group has been very loose and that's the way we've approached things for weeks," McNabb said. "We haven't had any problems with guys being hesitant in any way or wondering what if? Guys just understanding that, if we go out and do what we've been doing the previous weeks and just try to improve on it, dreams can come true."
In other words, they can "Prove It."