GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals won the National Football Conference final Sunday to set up their first Super Bowl appearance, where they will meet American Football Conference champions the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Cardinals, founding members of the NFL, but historically among the most dysfunctional of franchises, capitalized on Larry Fitzgerald's three first-half touchdown receptions, then coolly marching downfield to Kurt Warner's 8-yard scoring pass to rookie Tim Hightower with 2:53 left on their way to a 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Later Sunday at Pittsburgh, the Steelers, NFL champions three years ago, beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-14 behind a steady-as-he-goes Ben Roethlisberger to march into the Super Bowl in two weeks at Tampa.
Pittsburgh ended its home-field jinx in the AFC championship game and Troy Polamalu ended any chance the Ravens had for a comeback with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown.
If the Cardinals, the first No. 4 seed to host a conference championship game, were supposed to be thunderstruck by their surroundings, they instead responded like playoff veterans.
After blowing a 24-6 halftime lead, the 37-year-old Warner, a Super Bowl Most Valuable Player from almost a decade ago with the St. Louis Rams, engineered a precise, 72-yard drive to win it with his fourth TD pass of the day.
He finished the comeback with the 8-yard pass to Hightower, then hit Ben Patrick for the 2-point conversion.
"The demeanor in the huddle didn't change at all," Fitzgerald said. "The guys were focused and ready to go. You could see the look in guys' eyes. Nobody wanted to be the guy who let this team down. Everybody did their job when we needed them to do it."
But the key was the unstoppable Fitzgerald, who had nine receptions for 152 yards, including two big catches on the decisive drive. The All-Pro set a single postseason record with 419 yards receiving, surpassing the great Jerry Rice. And Fitzgerald has one more game to go — in the Super Bowl.
"I want to say thanks to all of you guys," Warner told the crowd during postgame celebrations that included streams of confetti spewed into the air and the obligatory "We are the Champions" blaring. "When nobody else believed in us, when nobody else believed in me, you guys did and we're going to the Super Bowl."
With playoff victories over Atlanta, Carolina and the Eagles, this is the Cardinals' most successful season. They've already surpassed their total of postseason wins dating back to when the playoffs began in 1933.
The last NFC team since the 1970 merger to make it this far, Arizona also is the first team with nine wins in the regular season to make the Super Bowl since the 1979 Rams lost to the Steelers.
For the favored Eagles, it was another disappointing end. Coach Andy Reid's team reached the NFC title game five times in the last eight seasons, losing four. They lost to New England in their only Super Bowl appearance during that run.
"You never want anything to end, and you don't see it ending," McNabb said. "To end this way, it's tough, when you're that close to making the Super Bowl."
The matchup between the Cardinals and the Steelers is intriguing — Mike Tomlin vs. the Cardinals' Ken Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator when the Steelers won their last Super Bowl, who went to Arizona only after being passed over for Pittsburgh's job.
Whisenhunt and his top assistant Russ Grimm left after the Steelers unexpectedly hired Tomlin, who has done something even Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher couldn't do by taking Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in his second season.
The Steelers harassed rookie Joe Flacco all game long. Normally unflappable, he looked lost at times and finished 13-for-30 for 141 yards and three costly interceptions.
Roethlisberger, picked off four times by New England in his rookie-year AFC title game, was a steady 16-of-33 for 255 yards, and most importantly, no interceptions, showing how much experience can matter in a game so big. After Polamalu's twisting, turning, zigzagging run sealed it with 4:39 to play, Steelers fans began singing "Pittsburgh's going to the Super Bowl!" — and the franchise is, for a seventh time.
Only the Steelers, 49ers and Cowboys have won five Super Bowls, and Pittsburgh can be the first to win six.