Game For The Birds
Glendale, AZ - With his best season in years, grizzled veteran Kurt Warner has led the Arizona Cardinals to their first playoff appearance in 10 years.
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has accomplished something just as impressive as a rookie.
The 23-year-old Ryan looks to help the Falcons continue their remarkable turnaround as they visit the 37-year-old Warner and the NFC West champion Cardinals in a wild-card game Saturday.
Oddsmakers from Online Sportsbook Sports Interaction have made the Falcons –1 point spread favorites for Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. Current NFL Public Betting Information shows that 72% of more than 14,853 bets for this game have been placed on the Falcons -1
Warner was named league MVP in 1999 and 2001 and earned Super Bowl MVP honors after leading the St. Louis Rams to the title following the 1999 season. After several inconsistent years, he regained his old form in 2008.
Warner has lost the starting quarterback job four times with three teams since earning his second MVP award. He's been benched twice in Arizona, only to persevere with a season that statistically matches his best with the Rams.
More impressively, he's guided the long-downtrodden Cardinals (9-7) to their second postseason berth since 1982 and first since 1998. It was the longest playoff drought in the NFL before Arizona clinched its first division title in 33 years with a 34-10 win over St. Louis on Dec. 7.
"It feels good. It makes me feel about five years younger," Warner said of the Cardinals' success. Then he hesitated, "Maybe two years younger."
Warner started 16 games for the first time since 2001, finishing second in the league in passing yards (4,583), completions (401) and completion percentage (67.1), and third with a franchise-record 30 touchdowns. He became the fourth quarterback in league history to pass for more than 4,500 yards in multiple seasons, and the first to have more than one season between his 4,500-yard campaigns.
"It's been a long time in waiting," Warner said after practice Tuesday. "So I definitely appreciate it and appreciate what we accomplished in St. Louis a lot more now, I'm sure, than I did when I was going through it."
Warner's counterpart Saturday may someday look back on this season the same way. The Associated Press named Ryan the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year on Tuesday after he and Baltimore's Joe Flacco became the first rookie quarterbacks to start every regular-season game and lead their teams to the playoffs.
Selected third overall in April's draft, Ryan completed 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,440 yards and 16 touchdowns, helping Atlanta (11-5) finish with seven more wins under first-year coach Mike Smith than it had last season, matching the biggest turnaround in franchise history.
"I'm certainly flattered," Ryan said. "There's a number of guys who had great rookie seasons this year, so to even be mentioned in that light is nice. It's certainly a great honor, and I think it speaks to what we did as a team this year."
As impressive as he's been, Ryan knows matching up with Warner will make it difficult for the Falcons to continue their surprising season.
"I hope when I'm 37 I'm playing at the level he is," Ryan said.
Luckily for Ryan, he'll likely get plenty of help from running back Michael Turner, who finished second in the league with 1,699 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns to earn his first Pro Bowl invitation in his first season as a starter. The 26-year-old spent his first four seasons backing up LaDainian Tomlinson with San Diego before signing with the Falcons in the spring.
While Atlanta boasted a balanced offense led by Ryan and Turner, Arizona made the playoffs despite finishing with the NFL's worst rush offense - the first team to do so since the 1986 New England Patriots. The Cardinals averaged only 73.6 yards on the ground, less than half the Falcons' average of 152.7 - second-most in the league.
The Cardinals made up for their lack of a running game with their dynamic passing attack. Receivers Larry Fitzgerald (1,431), Anquan Boldin (1,038) and Steve Breaston (1,006) became just the fifth trio of teammates to go over the 1,000-yard receiving mark in the same season.
It's unclear whether Boldin will take the field Saturday because of a shoulder injury that kept him out of the last two games of the regular season. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said Monday that Boldin's performance in practice will determine his availability, but Boldin scoffed at the suggestion his status was in question.
"If anybody thinks that I'm going to miss this game they're not too bright," he said.
Boldin helped the Cardinals to a 6-0 record against the weak NFC West, in which Arizona finished as the only team with a winning record.
The Cardinals, though, went 3-7 against teams from outside the division and lost four straight games to clubs with winning records after beating Dallas 30-24 in Week 6. They also lost four of five games before capping the regular season with a 34-21 win over lowly Seattle on Sunday.
That may not bode well, but the Cardinals can be encouraged by their success at home, where they were 6-2. This will be their first home playoff game since they won the NFL championship as the Chicago Cardinals in 1947.
The Falcons won seven of their last nine regular-season games, including their last three. But they're 1-5 all-time in Arizona, where these teams last met in Week 16 of 2007. Neil Rackers connected on a 31-yard field goal in overtime to give Arizona a 30-27 win and snap the team's four-game losing streak to Atlanta.
Top Betting Trends:
All games in this series since 1992
ATLANTA is 5-4 against the spread versus ARIZONA since 1992
ATLANTA is 6-4 straight up against ARIZONA since 1992
6 of 10 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games over the last 3 seasons
ATLANTA is 2-0 against the spread versus ARIZONA over the last 3 seasons
ARIZONA is 1-1 straight up against ATLANTA over the last 3 seasons 2 of 2 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
All games played at ARIZONA since 1992
ARIZONA is 2-2 against the spread versus ATLANTA since 1992
ARIZONA is 3-1 straight up against ATLANTA since 1992
4 of 4 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL since 1992
Games played at ARIZONA over the last 3 seasons.
ATLANTA is 1-0 against the spread versus ARIZONA over the last 3 seasons
ARIZONA is 1-0 straight up against ATLANTA over the last 3 seasons 1 of 1 games in this series have gone OVER THE TOTAL over the last 3 seasons
Key Player Injuries
[CB] David Irons IR - Knee - 12/16/08
[CB] Von Hutchins IR - Foot - 07/28/08
[OT] Renardo Foster is out for the rest of the season. - Knee - 11/21/08 [RB] Thomas Brown IR - Leg - 08/30/08
[S] Antoine Harris IR - Groin - 12/09/08
[TE] Ben Hartsock IR - Toe - 11/26/08
[WR] Laurent Robinson IR - Hamstring - 12/17/08
[LB] Ali Highsmith IR - Knee - 11/03/08
[LB] Clark Haggans expected to miss at least 2 weeks - Foot - 12/15/08[LB] Pago Togafau missed last game, "?" - Knee - 12/14/08
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Posted: 12/31/08 4:00PM ET