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Falcons, Cardinals battle in matchup of surprising playoff teams
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Matt Ryan leads the Falcons in their first playoff appearance since 2004. - photo by The Associated Press

Falcons fans' bask in playoff glory

Falcons vs. Cardinals

When: 4:30 p.m. today
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — One staged a remarkable one-season turnaround with a smooth, efficient rookie at the controls. The other emerged from a legacy of losing behind the ageless arm of a gunslinging veteran.

The Atlanta Falcons versus the Arizona Cardinals was not exactly a predictable playoff pairing when the season began. Their wild card matchup today is yet another example of the parity that prevails in the NFL.

“That’s why the NFL is the most popular spectator sport there is,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “It’s such a fun game and it’s such a great game to be around. Each year is a new year and you can’t really go by what the prognosticators say.”

The Falcons (11-5) flew to Phoenix on Thursday to give them a day to acclimate to the desert. It’s the first time all season that Atlanta has not had a full week between games.

“The only thing that concerns us a bit is the recovery time,” Smith said. “Usually our players have two days off after a game before they come out on the field.”

Arizona (9-7) had to make a quick turnaround twice in November. The first went well, the second not so well. The Cardinals won a Monday night game against San Francisco, then won at Seattle the following Sunday. But they lost at home to the New York Giants on a Sunday, then were blown out at Philadelphia the following Thursday, on Thanksgiving night.

The Falcons made a quick recovery from a 4-12 finish last season darkened by the legal troubles of Michael Vick and made worse by the abrupt resignation of coach Bobby Petrino.

Smith was hired by general manager Thomas Dimitroff, and the two set about transforming the downtrodden, dispirited team.

“When Thomas hired me, the first step in the process was we had to make some big decisions on the people we had on our football team,” Smith said. “We let some very good players and some good men go. But we needed to move in a different direction.”

The biggest need was at quarterback, and the Falcons drafted Matt Ryan out of Boston College with the No. 3 pick in the first round. They could hardly have known how well that would go. Ryan turned in one of the best seasons ever by a rookie, earning him the AP offensive rookie of the year award and admiration of his peers.

“You’ve got to be really impressed, especially in this day and age,” Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner said. “It’s a whole different ball game, picking up the speed, understanding what’s going on, understanding your offense, coming into a completely new offense, understanding that and then understanding what the defense is doing.”

Don’t expect Ryan to be overwhelmed by the playoffs, Warner said.

“What he’s done this year has to impress you, and you have to say there must be something different about this guy,” Warner said, “to do what he’s done and accomplish this much. So why do you think he’s going to take a step back in the playoffs? Or why do you think that’s going to be too big for him when everything else wasn’t?”

Atlanta’s other big need was at running back, and the Falcons signed free agent Michael Turner to fill that role. He finished as the NFL’s No. 2 rusher, behind only Adrian Peterson.

“Jerious Norwood is a great change-up, so we’ve got two guys who we feel can run the ball,” Smith said. “When you are able to run the football, when people have to commit to stop the run, then it creates some one-on-one situations and it makes it, I think, a little bit easier to throw the football.”

The Cardinals know all about throwing the football, usually without the help of any kind of ground game. Arizona was second in passing in the NFL and last in rushing.

The Cardinals have three receivers — Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston — that topped 1,000 yards receiving. Fitzgerald and Boldin are going to the Pro Bowl.

The 37-year-old Warner, returning to the Pro Bowl for the first time since the 2001 season, established six franchise records, including 30 touchdown passes.

Coach Ken Whisenhunt prefers an offense anchored by a strong running game, but he adapted to the personnel at hand. The result was a team that set a franchise record for points scored (427). Atlanta’s game more resembles what Whisenhunt envisioned when he was hired prior to the 2007 season, but he’s making no apologies.

“I’m excited about setting a franchise record in points. I’m excited about some of the things we’ve done here offensively this year,” Whisenhunt said. “As we continue to grow, we’re going to get better.”

The Falcons made it as a wild card team in the NFC South, arguably the toughest division in the conference. Arizona dominated the weak NFC West for its first division championship in 33 years. The team was 6-0 against division foes, 3-7 against everybody else.

That makes the Cardinals an underdog, even though they are playing at home. It’s a measure of the franchise’s sorry history that this is its first home playoff game since the then-Chicago Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Eagles to win the NFC championship in 1947.

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