CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Just moments before Arizona would bludgeon the Carolina Panthers to a matted, bloodied pulp, a small group of Cardinals players gathered in a circle and passed around a small object.
It was a tiny ammonia capsule. Around and around the capsule went, passing from hand to hand. Each player put the capsule under his nose, took a whiff, and then jumped excitedly, before handing it to the next guy down the line. The capsules were originally designed to wake unconscious people but are now used by some players as makeshift, short-term performance enhancers with the ammonia fumes providing a metabolic kick-start.
Fitzgerald is the scintillating muscle behind one of the best stories in all of sports, the core of a team that is shockingly stubborn and on a rainy Saturday night pulled off one of the great upsets in divisional round history.
I can't believe what I just saw.
Hold on: Jake Delhomme just got intercepted again.
Everyone who predicted a 33-13 blowout by the Cardinals, please raise your hand.
As a result of the improbable, now comes potentially the impossible: The Cardinals are a step away from the Super Bowl.
Sit down, take a deep breath and ponder that for a moment.
At one point, you thought there might be peace in the Middle East before that happened.
Or cats and dogs living together.
The Cardinals might play in the Super Bowl. Next thing you know there'll be a black president.
It's time to stop. To stop doubting Arizona, to stop saying they're going to lose, to stop calling them the Same Old Cardinals.
As much as the Panthers were a colossal, choking heap of duck poop, with Delhomme's alternate universe double making his Bad Jake appearance, Arizona winning was more the Cardinals making a gutsy, gravity defying statement as it was the Panthers stinking.
And this is Arizona's statement: We're for real, now shut up and start believing. Or not. We don't care either way.
After the game, the scene was surreal. A number of Panthers cheerleaders cried, some so hard it was like someone had died. Then again, someone just had.
In the Arizona locker room, there were exclamations of joy, and several outbursts of "We told you so." Well, they deserved to do that.
"The experts don't know us," said guard Reggie Wells. "No one believed in us."
"We don't want anyone to start believing in the Cardinals except the Cardinals fans," said defensive lineman Antonio Smith. "We love being the underdogs."
A sarcastic Darnell Dockett went off. "Shout out to Warren Sapp for picking us to lose ... I watched the news this morning and everyone was picking us to lose. Again we just showed up and let the running backs run all over top of us. That's good. [Carolina has its] exit physicals tomorrow and we get to get on a plane and enjoy the weekend."
|Larry Fitzgerald blows away the Cardinals defense. (US Presswire)|
Fitzgerald didn't just utilize his great physical skills and route running, he also took advantage of one of the dumbest schemes you'll ever see used against him.
For some puzzling reason, the Panthers used a zone as soft as a baby's bottom and Fitzgerald just strolled right through it. He abused the Panthers so badly there were PETA protests in the parking lot.
What's shocking is that without Anquan Boldin, who missed the game because of a bad hamstring, you'd think the Panthers would toss many of their defensive resources at Fitzgerald, and do everything possible to shut him down. Instead, Fitzgerald administered the kind of beating that's against United Nations bylaws.
With five minutes left in the first half, Fitzgerald had already set the team postseason record for receiving yards with 122.
With five minutes left in the first half ...
When asked why he thought he was so open all game, Fitzgerald responded, "I wasn't really that open." Then he smiled as reporters laughed. Of course he was and he knew it.
After the game, some of the Arizona players started saying to one another, "Twenty five missed calls." They said it over and over. I finally asked one of them what that meant. When Arizona loses a game, the player said, no friends or family call their cell phones in the moments after the game. When they win, their phones blow up.
And there are 25 missed calls.
I get the feeling there will be more than 25 this time.
The Cardinals are in the NFC title game and a step away from the Super Bowl.
The end of the world can't be far behind.