GLENDALE, Ariz. – As a receiver who ranks among the most prolific open-field runners of his era, Larry Fitzgerald is accustomed to seeing nothing but green as he races toward the goal line.
What Fitzgerald witnessed Sunday afternoon during an unscheduled end-zone dash, midway through a game that legitimized the Arizona Cardinals as the NFL's September Surprise, was even more striking: a convoy of black jerseys pulling away – from him, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Cards' recent reputation as irrelevant lightweights.
Believe it or not, all early indications are that the Cardinals are for real. And the signature play of their third consecutive victory to start the 2012 season – a 27-6 triumph over the Eagles at University of the Phoenix Stadium that featured relentless defensive pressure on Michael Vick and the improbable revival of his onetime teammate and competitor, embattled Cards quarterback Kevin Kolb – was positively surreal.
Five seconds before halftime, the Eagles were a yard away from cutting into Arizona's 17-0 lead when Vick dropped back to pass in search of an open receiver. Blitzing safety Kerry Rhodes came hard off the blind side and, as 60,436 fans gasped with anticipation, pummeled the oblivious quarterback and dislodged the ball.
Then, bedlam: Fellow safety James Sanders scooped it up on the second bounce and began a 93-yard streak down the left sideline. He had plenty of escorts, most notably linebacker Daryl Washington, who sealed off Philly halfback LeSean McCoy at the Eagles' 40-yard line. That was about the point at which Fitzgerald, holding his helmet in his left hand and doing a fist-wave with his right, began his impromptu sprint to pay dirt, underscoring his excitement with a leaping, over-the-back neck hug of Sanders.
"I saw everybody running, and I just started running, too," Fitzgerald explained after the Cardinals ran their record to 3-0 for the first time since 1974, when the franchise was based in St. Louis and pocket calculators first became widespread. "I couldn't block somebody, but I wanted to. I just wanted to be part of it."
It was that kind of afternoon in the Valley of the Sun, where the Cardinals have captured seven consecutive home games (they've won 10 of 12 overall) while being taken seriously by virtually no one. That might have changed on a wild Sunday that included: three overtime games; the destruction of everyone's power rankings; a conspicuous chain of unconscionable mistakes by the NFL's replacement officials; Bill Belichick putting his paw on one of those officials after a controversial, last-second defeat; former Al Davis adversary Marcus Allen lighting the eternal flame named for the late owner at the Oakland Coliseum; and Texans quarterback Matt Schaub losing part of his ear after a vicious hit from Broncos linebacker Joe Mays.
The Cardinals' defensive dominance rang through loud and clear after subduing what was formerly the NFL's top-ranked offense and beasting Vick, most glaringly on Sanders' score, which evoked memories of James Harrison's half-ending 100-yard interception return for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII.
"Yep, I was reminded," said Fitzgerald, the Arizona player who'd had the best shot at stopping Harrison on that Tampa Bay night in January 2009.
Quarterback Kurt Warner led the Cardinals to a memorable playoff victory the following January and retired later that month, at which point the desert became a quarterback wasteland, with Kolb as its most glaring symbol of futility. Shortly after the lockout ended in July 2011, the Cardinals sent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round draft pick to Philly for Kolb, once viewed as Donovan McNabb's successor before Vick's transcendent 2010 performance made him expendable.
Kolb, signed to a five-year, $65-million deal by the Cardinals, looked equal parts overwhelmed and overpaid, ultimately losing his job this summer in a training-camp competition with former fifth-round draft pick John Skelton. And then, just when he seemed to be punching his ticket for the Matt Leinart Express Train to insignificance, Kolb got another chance and regained his teammates' trust.
When Skelton went down with an ankle injury late in Arizona's season-opening game against the NFC West-rival Seattle Seahawks, Kolb came in and directed an 80-yard touchdown drive that proved to be the game-winner. "Something like that does a lot for you," said Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, whose job suddenly seems a lot more secure than it did at the start of the month.
Kolb performed well in last week's 20-18 road upset of the New England Patriots and went into Sunday's game determined to come up big against his former team.
"This game is huge for Kevin," Fitzgerald said Saturday night. "He wants it bad."
He got it, emphatically, in a performance that Cardinals president Michael Bidwill said shows that Kolb's "teammates are rallying around him." Yet as much as Kolb's competitive instincts have driven his resurgence – "He's playing with some major-league swag right now," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said – the quarterback has also learned to curb his enthusiasm for making big plays in the passing game.
"I talked to him during the week, and he said, 'Dock, I want this game,' " Dockett said of Kolb. "Of course he did. But I told him, 'When in doubt, take off and run. Be an athlete. A three- or four-yard gain is better than a three- or four-yard loss. If you've got to punt it away, that's not the end of the world.' "
Or, as Rhodes put it after the game: "Our offense doesn't have to be great. As long as they play smart, don't turn the ball over and make plays when they're there – at the very least, give us a chance to catch our breath – we feel we can dominate."
Kolb did more than give his defenders an oxygen boost against the Eagles, completing 17 of 24 passes for 222 yards and touchdowns to rookie Michael Floyd (on a hard throw that went through the hands of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans) and Fitzgerald. The latter score came on an arcing, 37-yard pass that the falling Fitzgerald cradled inside the 5 before sliding into the end zone for the score, giving the Cards a 17-0 lead midway through the second period.
Coming off a one-reception game against the Pats, Fitzgerald reminded the Eagles why he's one of the 21st century's elite players. In the first quarter, the 29-year-old Fitzgerald (nine catches, 114 yards) became the youngest player to reach 700 career receptions, besting Cowboys tight end Jason Witten by more than a full year. If the man stays healthy, all-time great Jerry Rice (1,549 receptions) might want to watch his back.
Fitzgerald, like the rest of the Cards' offense, had a relatively quiet second half, with only nine receiving yards in the final two quarters. Arizona's defense did the heavy lifting, continuing to overwhelm Philly's offensive line and harass Vick (17 for 37, 217 yards, five sacks, two fumbles) without mercy.
"They were on him all freaking day," Eagles tight end Brent Celek said. "He had no chance. They don't make many mistakes. You have to hold onto the ball and play well to beat them."
Whisenhunt hasn't said what he'll do when Skelton is healthy, but it's not likely Kolb will be pulled out of the lineup, barring a return to the skittish, mistake-prone performances he produced in the preseason. August may seem like a long time ago to giddy Cardinals fans, but those memories are fresh enough in Kolb's mind that he's resisting the temptation to focus on the big things he and his teammates may be able to accomplish in the months ahead.
"I don't even want to think about it right now," Kolb said in his postgame media session. "I just want to stay focused. Because I've done it in the past, you know, tried to foresee the future, and every time it comes up and knocks my legs out from under me."
On Sunday, he watched Vick get upended with impunity, and black jerseys fly to ball and up the sideline, and the best receiver in football leave the bench area and sprint 40 yards to join the party.
If Kolb or anyone else says he saw this coming a few weeks ago, don't believe him.
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