CHRIS WALSH Citizen Sportswriter
TEMPE – As the legend of the ”Comeback Cardinals” continues to grow, the formula had pretty much been established during the 100th regular season in franchise history.
Get a lead, blow the lead, then score in the final few seconds to walk off as winners. But Sun Devil Stadium had never seen anything like what happened yesterday.
After missing a field goal that would have iced the game, Arizona gave up a touchdown pass on fourth down and 19 yards to go, got the ball back with 16 seconds left, completed a key pass, and then kicked a field goal to defeat the San Diego Chargers 16-13.
For the first time since the franchise moved here in 1988, the Cardinals qualified for the playoffs and will travel to play the rival Dallas Cowboys in a wild-card game Saturday at 2 p.m.
”It’s hard for me to let it all out right now. On the inside, I’m jumping up and down,” fullback Larry Centers said. ”Last play, last second of the season? That’s how we do it – Cardiac Cardinals.”
In front of a packed house, as yesterday’s game was the first nonDallas sellout at Sun Devil Stadium, the emotional release of the players and fans was simply overwhelming.
Beforehand the game was viewed as the most important in Arizona history. Not only was a winning year and a playoff berth at stake, but perhaps the team’s future here as Mesa faces a crucial stadium vote in the coming months.
After the Cardinals (9-7) won their seventh game by three points or fewer – establishing an NFL record – thousands of fans stormed the field, mobbed players and trashed the north goal post, as the years of frustration were expelled.
Fourteen-year veteran tackle Lomas Brown acted like an overgrown kid, hugging his teammates in glee.
Vice president of player personnel Bob Ferguson openly wept for the first time since fleecing the Chargers in a trade and using their draft choice to select defensive end Andre Wadsworth.
Cornerback Aeneas Williams was also crying as he finally left the field in fear for his own safety from wildly enthusiastic fans.
”I’m numb,” linebacker Jamir Miller said. ”I’m emotionally spent and overjoyed.”
”Are we really in the playoffs? Or are officials going to make a bad call and tell us tomorrow we’re not really in the playoffs?” Centers said. ”I’m hoping we can display the same amount of character in the playoffs that we’ve displayed the whole season – that never-say-die attitude.”
The way Arizona won only added to the drama. Had this team lost, it might not have ever recovered or regained the confidence of fans, as the franchise hasn’t been in the playoff since 1982, although that was a strikeshortened season.
But Judgment Day turned into Redemption Day for three players in particular.
• Safety Kwamie Lassiter, who lost his starting job in training camp, only to regain it in Week 14, made four interceptions to tie an NFL record shared by 16 other players, including former Cardinal Jerry Norton, who did it twice. He finished the regular season with eight to lead the NFC and finish second in the league as New England’s Ty Law had nine.
”I was extremely happy for Kwamie,” defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis. ”He’s a very, very tough individual.”
• For the third straight week, Chris Jacke missed an important field-goal attempt, only to come back and nail the game winner in dramatic fashion. Yesterday, he was wide right from 45 and 42 yards, but made the 52-yard clincher.
”He hits it when it really, really matters, not just when it matters,” quarterback Jake Plummer quipped.
• Finally, Eric Metcalf, who was involved in the Wadsworth deal but struggled for most of the season, broke out with a 46-yard kick return to set up the winning field goal.
”I saw it was pretty much straight down the middle,” Jacke said of his game-winning kick. ”I just turned to the sideline and was mobbed.”
The rest of the game wasn’t nearly as exciting. Arizona scored the only touchdown of the first half as Adrian Murrell went through a hole opened by left guard Chris Dishman and scored on a 4-yard touchdown run – although replays showed that it was questionable whether the running back actually got the ball over the goal line.
Down 10-3 at the half, the Chargers (5-11) continued to pound the ball up the middle behind a veteran line with 41 years’ experience among five players.
Four-year veteran Terrell Fletcher had 127 yards on 23 carries for an average of 5.5 yards, while Murrell had 25 yards on 18 carries for a 1.4 average.
Consequently, safety Tommy Bennett led Arizona with 12 tackles, while Lassiter and middle linebacker Ronald McKinnon both had 11.
Lassiter’s fourth interception actually came on a long pass that he was beat on, but rookie Ryan Thelwell had the ball bounce right off his knee and into the safety’s hands with 4:21 remaining.
”He should have made that play, but he bobbled the ball because I think he thought Corey (Chavous) or I was going to hit him,” Lassiter said. ”It just hopped into my hands. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Lassiter would not be as fortunate on San Diego’s next and final possession. Following Jacke’s miss, quarterback Craig Whelihan led the Chargers to the Cardinals’ 20, only to be sacked by tackle Mark Smith, who didn’t start because of an ankle injury, for a 10-yard loss.
With fourth-and-19, Arizona went for the knockout punch with a zone blitz, but Thelwell split the three defenders, and Whelihan’s pass reached him before Lassiter could get over to help Chavous.
To the surprise of the Cardinals’ coaches, the Chargers elected to kick the tying extra point instead of going for the 2-point conversion.
”I thought for sure we were going to get it in overtime,” said Jones, who will now head the University of Hawaii program. ”Normally, on the road I’m going to go for two and win it there, but I felt good about our defense.”
”I still thought we were going to win,” Lassiter said. ”Sixteen seconds is a lot of time for Jake.”
After Metcalf’s return, Plummer needed only to make a 10-yard pass to Sanders as Jacke trotted out with three seconds left.
”It’s the Cardiac Cards,” said Sanders, who had eight receptions despite missing nearly half the game with a knee injury. He finished with a NFC-high 89 catches (second in NFL to O.J. McDuffie’s 90 for Miami). ”We’re getting it done like that. It’s not always pretty, but as long as it works.”
When it was over, owner Bill Bidwill was handed the ball and quickly ushered off the field. Ferguson said he had never seen anything like it. Coach Vince Tobin only thought, ”Hallelujah!”
No longer does Arizona have the longest active playoff drought of 15 seasons. Now, the players and coaches can concentrate on getting the franchise its first playoff victory since 1947 (although the Cardinals beat the Packers in a 1965 non-advancing playoff bowl).
”You get tired of hearing all that stuff,” said Plummer, who was 1 year old the last time the Cardinals were in the playoffs during a non-strike year, 1975. ”It’s a new start. Looking back, this will be a year that we turned things around.
”We’re in. It feels great.”
Cardinals’ playoff history
Year Coach Record Site Result
1947 Jimmy Conzelman 9-3 Comisky Park Cardinals 28, Eagles 21
1948 Jimmy Conzelman 11-2 Shibe Park Eagles 7, Cardinals 0
1964 Wally Lemm 9-3-2 Orange Bowl Cardinals 24, Packers 17
1974 Don Coryell 10-4 Metropolitan Stadium Vikings 30, Cardinals 14
1975 Don Coryell 11-3 L.A. Coliseum Rams 35, Cardinals 25
1982 Jim Hanifan 5-4 Lambeau Field Packers 41, Cardinals 16
Cardinals with playoff experience
Name Position Team Games Record
Chris Jacke Kicker Green Bay 13 9-4
Mark Maddox Linebacker Buffalo 9 5-4
Mike Devlin Center Buffalo 5 3-2
Lomas Brown Tackle Detroit 5 1-4
Eric Metcalf Wide receiver Cleveland/San Diego 4 2-2
Lester Holmes Guard Philadelphia 3 1-2
Chris Gedney Tight end Chicago 2 1-1
Trey Junkin Long snapper Washington/Oakland 2 0-2
Ronnie Anderson* Wide receiver Green Bay 1 1-0
Dave Brown Quarterback Giants 1 0-1
Rob Moore Wide receiver Jets 1 0-1
Carl Simpson Defensive end Chicago 1 0-1
* Gameday inactive
Longest playoff droughts
Team Last berth Seasons
Cardinals 1982 15
Seahawks 1988 10
Rams 1989 9
Bengals 1990 8
PHOTO CAPTIONS: Photos by the Associated Press
The Arizona Cardinals earn an NFL playoff berth for the first time since 1982 by beating San Diego 16-13 on a 52-yard field goal by Chris Jacke (photo at right) as time runs out.
Some of the sellout crowd at Sun Devil Stadium floods the field following the Cards’ victory.