Kurt Warner completed 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions and a nearly perfect 145.7 passer rating while leading his Arizona Cardinals to a 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. The Cardinals built a 24-6 halftime lead but had to come from behind after the Eagles scored 19 unanswered points. Warner responded by directing a 14 play, 72 yard fourth quarter touchdown drive that chewed up 7:52 on the clock. As announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman suggested, if Warner had not already assembled a Hall of Fame worthy resume then that one drive may very well have sealed the deal. The Eagles got the ball back with 2:53 left in regulation but Donovan McNabb completed just 3 of his next 8 passes--Philadelphia threw the ball on every single play--and the Eagles turned the ball over on downs. Arizona could not quite run out the clock but managed to pin the Eagles deep in their territory with just :09 left.
McNabb completed 28 of 47 passes for 375 yards, three touchdowns, one interception and a 97.4 passer rating. He has been a very good player for a number of years and it is obviously difficult to look at those numbers and then blame him for this loss--but this game is a microcosm of the way McNabb tends to perform in big games. McNabb was horrible in the first half as Arizona built what seemed to be a nearly insurmountable advantage but then, like a streak shooter in basketball, he got hot and put up points in bunches while Philadelphia's defense stymied Warner and the Cardinals. However, when push came to shove, Warner made the plays that gave his team a huge cushion and when his team trailed for the first time he promptly led the Cardinals down the field for the game-winning score. In my preview post I not only almost exactly nailed the score of the game (31-20 Arizona was my prediction), I concluded, "I expect Warner to outduel McNabb much like he did seven years ago" (when Warner's Rams beat McNabb's Eagles in the NFC Championship Game).
Is the "real" McNabb the one who helped his team make a gallant comeback? Or is the "real" McNabb the one who threw several inaccurate passes as his team quickly fell behind and then finished the game by again throwing several inaccurate passes? McNabb deserves credit for leading the Eagles to five NFC Championship Games but he has earned only one victory in that round. He seems destined to be remembered as a player who was very good but not quite good enough to carry a team to a championship.
As for Warner, he has been the lead actor in a similar drama before; a decade ago he helped to transform the St. Louis Rams overnight from a sad sack franchise into Super Bowl champions. Now he has guided the Cardinals--who have not won a championship in six decades--to the franchise's first ever Super Bowl appearance. Warner improved to 3-0 in NFC Championship Game play and he owns one of the top five career playoff passer ratings in NFL history.
The Cardinals are just the second team from a non-strike year to advance to the Super Bowl despite winning fewer than 10 regular season games. They looked dead in the water after losing four games in a five game stretch late in the season--giving up 37, 48, 35 and 47 points in those defeats--but they have scored at least 30 points in each of their three playoff games while holding their opponents to 24 points or less.
In the Super Bowl, Arizona's flashy, pass-oriented offense will provide a stark contrast with Pittsburgh's physical, pounding style but before too much is made of those differences it is worth remembering that during the playoffs the Cardinals have shown that they can play good, hard physical defense while the Steelers have demonstrated big play capability with their passing game. Other subplots include the duel between graybeard Warner and young gun Ben Roethlisberger--each of whom has already led a team to a Super Bowl title--and the coaching matchup between Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin and Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt, a former Steelers assistant coach who the Steelers passed over in favor of hiring Tomlin.