January 3, 2009.
The Arizona Cardinals, NFC West champs and hosting a playoff game for the first time, hosted the upstart Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons, led by rookie QB Matt Ryan and RB Michael Turner, who ran for 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns that season, were winners of 11 regular season games. They entered the game as favorites.
They left as losers.
The Cardinals jumped out to an early lead thanks to a Kurt Warner pass to Larry Fitzgerald, fell behind, got a big defensive play from Antrel Rolle and held on to beat the Falcons 30-24.
Warner completed 19-of-32 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns on the afternoon, and Edgerrin James rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries. Fitzgerald torched the Falcons for 101 yards and one touchdown on six receptions, while Anquan Boldin tallied 72 yards and a score on just two catches.
“A lot of people coming into this game said we were the worst playoff team ever to get in,”Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said after the game. “… I think we rallied around that.”
Ryan completed 26-of-40 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns, but was picked off twice in the game. Turner was held to 42 yards and a score on 18 carries, and Roddy White gained just 84 yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions.
The Falcons, who may have been even more of a surprise than the Cardinals that season, looked at the disappointing finish as motivation going forward.
“I think you have to remember what we did as a team this year and we did some things well,” Ryan said. “We made some strides as a team as the year went on. But you have to use this as motivation. You don’t want to be here.”
The Cardinals parlayed their victory into a surprise run to the Super Bowl that season and another division title the next year. The Falcons saw their record drop to 9-7 the following year, which resulted in them missing the playoffs.
That’s as bad as it would get.
Since the Wild Card Round matchup, the Falcons have gone 40-17 in the regular season. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are 27-30. With an 8-1 mark this season, Atlanta is a bona-fide Super Bowl contender. At 4-5 the Cardinals are, well, reeling.
Perhaps this should not come as much of a surprise, though, as the teams that met in the playoffs nearly four years ago were going in completely different directions.
The Cardinals were riding a veteran quarterback; the Falcons a promising rookie signal caller. That alone goes to show just how important it is to have the position settled for as long as possible.
While the Cardinals have gone through six different starting quarterbacks since that game, the Falcons have had just two, and it would be one if not for injury. Ryan has emerged as one of the game’s best passers, throwing more touchdown passes every season. His QB rating has climbed every year he’s been in the NFL.
The Falcons, who were clearly in the beginning stages of a championship window when the teams met in the postseason, still have some key players from that game.
Ryan, Turner and White are all impact players on offense, while John Abraham and Jonathan Babineaux are still playing well for the defense.
The Cardinals also have players who will remember the game, with Fitzgerald, Adrian Wilson, Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett and Michael Adams all holdovers from that time.
It’s only been four years, yet much has changed for the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons. Each has experienced some success — with the Cardinals even reaching the Super Bowl.
But right now, four years after they met at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the Falcons are clearly soaring at greater heights than the Cardinals.