CHARLOTTE -- The Arizona Cardinals had to overcome something stronger than the Atlanta Falcons to win last week's wild-card matchup.
They had to beat back time.
The traditions of the Cardinals' franchise are among the most painful in sports. One of the charter members of the NFL, they've also been one of the more ridiculous. That's why last week's win over the Falcons was so big. Not just because it earned them a trip to play the Carolina Panthers in the divisional round Saturday night, but because it was their third playoff win in 90 years of doing business.
"It is obviously something that is very rewarding for this team and the organization just from the standpoint of, first of all, not having won the division in a number of years and not having had a home playoff game since 1947," said Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, who was 15 years from being born when the Cards last played a home playoff game.
"Just to have that was a big accomplishment for us. It was exciting that, even though we have a young team that has never been in the playoffs, that we were able to focus and play well against a very good Atlanta team and win the game."
The Cardinals were founded in Chicago in 1898 and in 1920 became one of the original members of the league (then known as the American Professional Football Association). They won the 1947 league championship, lost the title game the next year, and then began a drought which carried them through two cities and 20 coaches, but just 15 winning seasons and five playoff appearances, counting this one.
When you consider the teams they had in St. Louis, coached by Don Coryell and stocked full of talents such as Hall of Famers Dan Dierdorf and Roger Wehrli, it remains one of the longest-running tragedies since "Hamlet."
Since they moved to the desert in 1988, they've gone a combined 124-215, just nine victories ahead of the Panthers (115-118) despite a seven-year head start.
Panthers backup quarterback Josh McCown said he's happy that his old friends there get to know what the postseason's like. He spent four seasons in Arizona, and said it takes a while to understand the weight of the history of losing until you're caught under the avalanche.
"I don't think you are aware of it until you go through a season and you're not successful," he said. "Then you hear the fans and the media go 'same old Cardinals' and 'Here we go again.' Then immediately you know, once you've been through it a year, you understand where they're coming from.
"You understand the history then, that 'Man, this franchise hasn't been very good.' It's hard."
McCown was drafted by the Cardinals in 2002, during the tail end of the Dave McGinnis years -- which yielded to the entertaining yet unsatisfying Dennis Green era. After being jerked around (literally and figuratively, being benched the night before a game in Charlotte in 2004 after practicing with the first team all week), he left as a free agent to sign with Detroit. That didn't work out much better, and neither did the trade to Oakland. He thought he had escaped to Miami with a shot at something decent, but Chad Pennington landed in the Dolphins' laps and he came to Charlotte as a backup.
He's genuinely grateful for the experience, because he said going through such struggles makes him appreciate this place more. He knows that his old friends left behind have done amazing work, not only overcoming the Seahawks and Rams and 49ers, but the years of losing that permeate every aspect of what they did.
"Yeah, definitely it weighs you down," McCown said. "You can say it doesn't, but inevitably it does. I'm sure with the success of the Patriots, you go there and you feel better, you fell like you have a chance to be successful. That's just who they are.
"I think it takes a lot to change. Especially when you have a long history like that, it takes a lot to change it. That's why I'm excited for them, because to do what they've done is pretty special."
Cards quarterback Kurt Warner, in his fourth season in Arizona and emboldened by the recent success, said players have been buoyed enough by the good to lose sight in the short term of all the bad behind them.
"It affects you more in regards to how long you've been a part of the history," Warner said. "I don't think anyone can really associate with the first home playoff game in fifty years or the first playoff game since such-and-such. But what I can relate to personally is that I've been here four years and haven't been in the playoffs since I've been here. I can definitely associate with that part of the history.
"With what the community was like when I first got here. What the expectations are of this organization, how do other people look at this organization, and trying to change that. I'm really working hard to change what's been going on here for a long time."
The Cardinals have more obstacles to overcome than their own tradition of ineptitude. They live on the other side of the country and have the challenges of their own wonderful climate. So when they have to travel east, or play in winter weather, they have a tendency to fall apart.
Witness their 47-7 loss at New England on Dec. 21, when they looked like a team that quit upon realizing it was snowing -- either that or they were astonished by the white stuff falling from the sky.
That game earned them universal scorn. They were referred to as frauds and unworthy playoff participants in most quarters, fortunate to play in the worst division in the league and earn the automatic berth in the tournament.
Warner said as difficult as that loss was, he saw it as part of a growing process for a team that's now 18-15 under Whisenhunt. It might not sound like much, but it's a place to start.
"Yeah, I'd like to win every game, but we're not there as a football team," Warner said. "We're not a great football team yet. But that's what we're working towards and that's what we have to understand. You can't let a bad game here or a bad game there change your whole perspective on what you're building and what you can be as a football team and what your potential is as a football team.
"So as disappointing as some of those losses were, I'd use it more as motivation to say that this goes to show that we're not there yet, we've got to keep working, we've got to keep plugging so that we can become a team like the Patriots that are competitive every week and compete for a championship every year. That's what we want to be."