The way the pundits, the "experts," were talking all week, the Minnesota Vikings could just mail this one in.
Sure, once the Cardinals/Vikings game was flexed as the week’s marquee game, the obvious Favre vs. Warner hype became inevitable. But the talk of this actually being a hard-fought battle between two NFC powerhouses never appeared (unless you happened to read it here).
There was an air of inevitability at play here, too. The Warner/Favre show was a great story line, but the Cardinals, fresh off a crushing road loss with 0:00 on the clock in Tennessee, and a measly 2-3 at home, were just another bump in the Vikings' road to the NFC Championship game. This game, beyond the quarterbacks, never got the respect it deserved in the press.
It was ‘all about’ Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, and the fact that it was the NFC Champions vs the red hot, 10-1 team trying to dethrone them, never caught fire.
I could almost feel the collective wink 'n' nod amongst the "experts" in the press box (and watching TV’s everywhere) when Cardinals RB Tim Hightower coughed up the ball on the opening drive, and Minnesota safety Tyrell Johnson pounced on it. A few minutes later, those "knowing" glances by the mucky-mucks likely went into overdrive upon seeing Favre lead a touchdown drive that seemed all too easy.
But, as Ive noted many times throughout the season, a lonely voice screaming "This is a good team!" to anyone that will listen, the NFC Champion Cardinals, as a good team does when adversity strikes, collected themselves, dusted themselves off, and then proceeded in dusting off the mighty Minnesota Vikings the rest of the way.
Ya hay !
The Cardinals' defense flat shut down the vaunted Vikings' offense. It stuffed Favre, Adrian Peterson, and that stable of fine young receivers like a Thanksgiving turkey (it’s never too late for Thanksgiving analogies, is it?), in three-and-outing them over and over.
Meanwhile, the former MVP quarterback who isn’t tripping over the piles of idol worship and acclaim left at his feet by the "experts," just did what he has done all year.
The defense had just left the field following a three-and-out, and having forced the Vikings to punt. Cardinals WR/punt-returner Steve Breaston cradled the ball at the Cards' 35, and took it all the way back to the Minnesota two-yard line. Warner then hit Boldin, and just like that, the game was tied with about four minutes left in quarter one.
The defense didn’t stop. As though they took that first "easy" drive on a short field personally. It had the look of a defense that wouldn’t be denied. Again, it dropped a three-and-out on the "Favres," and again the Big Red was on the move, but Warner lead a drive that fizzled just outside of Neil Rackers' field-goal range, and Cardinals' should-be pro bowl punter Ben Graham pinned the Minnesota offense deep in its own territory, inside the 10-yard line.
Yet another three-and-out, and you could almost feel the air let out of the Vikings' offense as the Cards took over the field-position war as well. From his own 42, Warner first hit Breaston, taking it to the Vikings 35, or so.
The next play showed exactly why former cornerback, and current NFL Network talking, head Deion Sanders screams “Pay the man!” every time Anquan Boldin’s name is mentioned.
Warner, under pressure, hit Boldin on a pass that looked to be nearly uncatchable. Boldin twisted his body inside, and caught the pig off the defender's tailbone, gathered himself, and zigged toward the end zone, then zagged and deeked another defender, before diving to pay dirt for the second time. And just like that, a 14-7 lead.
To this point, Vikings RB Adrian Peterson had been silent—or silenced—but Favre was able to get a little traction, and Peterson was able to add an 11-yard run that give the Vikings a 1st-and-10 under the shadow of the Cardinals goal post. It turned out to be far-and-away the longest run on the night for Peterson, who was held to a paltry 19 yards on 13 carries (eight yards on the other 12 carries), his second lowest output as a pro.
But that Big Red D stepped up again, denying the Vikings a TD, and forcing a Ryan Longwell field goal. This made it a four-point lead at 14-10 with about five minutes left in the half, and would be the closest Minnesota would get the rest of the way.
Just before the end of the second quarter, Warner threw a pass on first down that ended in the hands of the aforementioned Johnson, but it was wiped away because of an offside penalty. Bummer, if you’re a Vikes fan, because Warner then went to work, and hit WR Larry Fitzgerald in stride on a beautiful 34-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cards a double-digit lead that they would never relinquish.
You could almost hear the pundits and "experts" jumping from the press box to their doom.
Favre and the mighty Vikings offense started marching down the field. After a couple of first downs, the Cards rushed five and, under pressure, Favre threw short over the middle. The ball was picked off by a leaping LB Karlos Dansby, who had a great all-around game. The Cards turned Favre’s first interception in like 47 billion passes this year, into three more points, and never looked back.
The dagger was placed on the next Vikings drive. After Favre hit two-straight completions that had the Minnesota faithful (Ya-hay!) thinking comeback, he threw an ill-advised pass that was an easy pick for Cards' young nickelback Michael Adams.
While the temptation was there to start the celebration, long-time Cardinals fans know better—but it felt damn good!
The next two Minnesota possessions were thwarted by two Bertrand Berry sacks. The feeling that it was over, that Cardinals believers could take a deep breath, was upon us.
As an apparent nod to fantasy players the world over (the only reason I could see why they trotted the 40 year old Favre out on the field down by 20 with five minutes left), Favre lead a meaningless touchdown drive with just over a minute to go. It didn’t matter. At All .
This was a game that many thought would be a blowout, but the wrong team did the blowing out. I suppose it’s part of being a Cardinal (or fan) to be dis-respected and belittled, even while wearing the NFC Championship crown. History can’t be made or erased in a season, no matter how spectacular or dismal it is.
And that suits this Cardinals team just fine.
This is a team that wore the underdog label proudly as it watched expert after football expert eat crow following each playoff win last year. This is a team that thrives on the opposition being heavily favored, and making the doubters eat their words. This is a team that rode that label, that stigma, all the way to Tampa Bay in February.
So keep that "same old Cardinals" mentality alive, nay-sayers! That’s A-OK with them, I’m sure. Keep thinking the NFC powerhouses from Minnesota and New Orleans, etc. can just mail it in when they play the Arizona Cardinals.
But don’t be surprised to see another "special delivery" or two before it’s all said and done.