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Warner, Cardinals edge Eagles 32-25 for NFC title

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Larry Fitzgerald stood at the podium when Kurt Warner sneaked up from behind and gave his receiver a bear hug.

That was a lot closer than the Philadelphia Eagles ever got to the All-Pro in Sunday's NFC championship game.

Because the Eagles couldn't handle Fitzgerald or Warner, the Arizona Cardinals are heading to the Super Bowl. Yes, folks, the team that for decades has been a bad joke in the NFL had the last laugh in its conference with a 32-25 victory.

They'll play the Pittsburgh Steelers, with the AFC champions an early 6 1/2-point favorite.

The win was built on Warner's four touchdown passes, three to Fitzgerald, who had a record-setting day before an earsplitting crowd that couldn't have imagined such a thing back in September - when the Cardinals were a 45-1 longshot to make their first Super Bowl.

'I didn't know if we'd ever get to this point,' said Warner, who found rookie Tim Hightower with a middle screen pass for an 8-yard touchdown with 2:53 left that won it. 'I believed we could play with anyone in the league. But the challenge for us was putting that together in two, three, four weeks. Could we do that?

'You've seen us do that and you've seen we're as good as anyone in this league.'

They get to prove that for certain in Tampa in two weeks, against the top defense in football.

The Steelers surely must do a better job on Fitzgerald, who was unstoppable against Philadelphia (11-7-1). Fitzgerald had nine receptions for 152 yards, including two big catches on the decisive 72-yard drive. His touchdowns covered 9, 1 and 62 yards, the latter on a fleaflicker during which safety Quintin Demps fell.

He set a single postseason record with 419 yards receiving, surpassing the great Jerry Rice. And Fitzgerald has one more game to go.

'Larry is phenomenal,' Warner said.

'He has made I don't know how many huge plays for us in the playoffs,' said coach Ken Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator when the 2005 Steelers won the championship and the man who changed the football culture in Arizona from dysfunctional to dynamic. 'I think that his confidence has grown. You have to give Larry credit because he never had too big of an ego that he didn't want to work on things, and that has really made him a dangerous receiver.'

You think?

But for all of Fitzgerald's first-half heroics in building a 24-6 lead, the Cardinals (12-7) fell apart in the third quarter, gaining just 8 yards, and Philadelphia staged a sensational comeback.

Donovan McNabb hit Brent Celek for touchdowns of 6 and 31 yards. Then McNabb, who once this season got benched after a terrible opening half, silenced the raucous crowd with a 62-yard heave to rookie DeSean Jackson. The ball was tipped by cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie into Jackson's hands near the goal line with 10:45 remaining in the game.

Shockingly, Philadelphia was on top 25-24.

'We got in our comfort zone,' McNabb said. 'We came back and got to be in the rhythm that we need to be in, scoring points.'

Just not enough points.

Time for Warner to show his pedigree on a drive that took nearly 8 minutes and carried the Cardinals to victory.

'I want to say Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence,' a jubilant Warner said. 'The Arizona Cardinals in the Super Bowl. How about it?'

For the well-traveled Warner, the win was his third in as many NFC title contests. He led the 1999 and 2001 Rams to the Super Bowl - he was league MVP both years and St. Louis went 1-1 in those Super Bowls - before his career faded.

But the resurrected Warner has been sensational this season, and now he's led the Cardinals far beyond any previous success since moving to Arizona in 1988.

He finished 21-for-28 for 279 yards and the four TDs.

McNabb was 27-for-46 for 375 yards.

'You never want anything to end, and you don't see it ending,' said McNabb, like coach Andy Reid a loser in four of five NFC title games in the last eight years. 'To end this way, it's tough, when you're that close to making the Super Bowl.'

The Cardinals in the Super Bowl is no mirage rising out of the Arizona desert. The first No. 4 seed to host a conference championship, they used playoff victories over Atlanta, Carolina and the Eagles to become the Cardinals' winningest team. They've already surpassed their total of postseason wins dating back to when the playoffs began in 1933.

Arizona is the first team with nine wins in the regular season to make the Super Bowl since the 1979 Rams lost to the Steelers.

The most attention paid to the Cardinals since moving here from St. Louis came on a sad note - when star safety Pat Tillman suddenly retired in 2002 to join the Army Rangers, and was later killed in Afghanistan.

'It's been a tough number of years here in Arizona,' Whisenhunt admitted.

The losing ended when Whisenhunt arrived, and the franchise gets its first shot at an NFL crown since beating the Eagles in 1947, then losing to them the next year while representing Chicago.

How juicy for Whisenhunt that it's the Steelers who await the Cardinals.

'Like everyone else, I was a little disappointed that we couldn't get a Super Bowl matchup with any compelling story lines,' he joked. 'But honestly, it's unbelievably special that we're going to the Super Bowl under any circumstances, but now to find out that we'll be playing the Steelers certainly takes it to another level.

'Obviously that organization and the people associated with it hold a special place in my heart. From that standpoint, this is something of a dream scenario for me and many of the other coaches on our staff.'

Now is not the time to wake up, either.