Card Tricks

Does Arizona have an ace up its sleeve?

More than any professional sport, football has made parity its chief cause, successfully narrowing the margin between good, bad, and mediocre teams. The league likes to give the fans something to chew on. Yet no one has bothered to advance the fanciful claim that the Arizona Cardinals--who have cultivated a reputation as the league's most dramatic comeback artists (7-1 in games decided by three points or less)--might actually beat the Vikings in next Sunday's divisional playoff game.

To any but the most perverse observers, that scenario seems too much of a whopper--particularly considering that the contest will be played at the Metrodome, where the 15-1 Vikes, rested and healed after a first-round bye, remain undefeated. The Viking defense has played its most impressive ball at home, reveling in the twin luxuries of noisy crowds and a fast surface. And, of course, the offense--which capped its astonishing year by shattering the league's regular-season scoring record (now 556 points)--has prospered in all venues. By Sunday night, the Vegas casinos pegged the Vikes as a hefty two-touchdown favorite.

Most commentators, contemplating this mismatch, have assumed the classic pitchman's tactic, casting the game as a contest not between teams but between individual stars. And, quite fittingly, the initial round of speculation has centered on an intriguing match-up between Aeneas Williams and Randy Moss. After all, in Dallas on Sunday, Williams slammed the door on any fading hopes for a resurgence of the Cowboy dynasty. The Cardinals' perennial Pro Bowl cornerback embarrassed two aging stars--wide receiver Michael Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman. Irvin (whose past off-the-field behavior ought to be celebrated by Viking fans as the X factor that caused the Cowboys to pass over Moss in the draft) couldn't pry himself loose from the speedy corner. The 'Boys go-to guy ended the day with a meager four catches for 32 yards. Twice Williams picked off Aikman, an impressive feat considering Aikman's status as one of the most error-free quarterbacks in the history of postseason play.

Rookie of the Year Randy Moss: More records in the cards?
Rookie of the Year Randy Moss: More records in the cards?

Williams leads all NFL cornerbacks for interceptions in the 1990s with 39, but--owing to the chronic disappointments of Cardinals football--has seldom appeared on national television and even more seldom had the chance to prove himself in a meaningful game. Moss, who owns some of the gaudiest receiving stats in the league (17 TDs, 19 yards per catch, 1,313 total yards) has already developed a reputation for shining in the big games. It's a natural sell: hard-luck veteran vs. rookie of the year.

That, however, seems to be about the only compelling story line posed by next Sunday's Vikings-Cardinals meeting. Playing in the NFC East, the league's weakest division, the Cards squeaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record thanks to a trio of last-second, fluky victories. Until last Saturday, they hadn't beaten a single team which finished at .500 or better. And, it's worth noting, the Cowboys would have finished a mediocre 8-8 had they not beaten the Cards twice during the regular season.

Sure, Arizona's second-year quarterback Jake Plummer, a savvy improviser, possesses a measure of Tarkentonian pocket sense. A handful of young stars on the Cards' defense--notably cornerback Corey Chavous and linebacker Jamir Miller--show promise. But the team also surrendered 53 more points than they scored. Their offense has surpassed the Vikings' lowest single-game production (24 points) just three times this season. And most significant, the Cards come to the Dome with an anemic ground attack, ranked 21st in the league, 3.8 yards a carry--not a hopeful sign, considering that the Vikes' sole defeat, at Tampa Bay, was the product of the Bucs' powerful running game.

By all conventional wisdom, the Cardinals and their fans should brace themselves for a blowout--the euphoria of the franchise's first playoff win in 51 years notwithstanding. But those desperate for at least a measure of drama might take a look at some Viking history for some quirky parallels. The Cards' 20-7 drubbing of the Cowboys represents the biggest upset in NFC playoffs since 1987; that, as it happens, was the year Jerry Burns' Vikes went 8-7 (in a strike-shortened season stained by a three-game stretch of scab ball). Much like this year's Cards, those Vikes finagled the final playoff seed and dealt a surprising defeat to a favored wild-card opponent--the 12-3 New Orleans Saints. Then, in the divisional playoff, Burnsy's boys pulled off an even more implausible upset against the top-ranked 49ers.

Of course, those sorts of wins don't come often. And the Cards may need to wait another 50 years or so.

 
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