GLENDALE, Ariz. - It was never going to be easy, no matter how many times Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald hooked up for touchdowns in the first half. It couldn't be, because these were the Cardinals, and nothing has come easy for them since long before they moved to the Arizona desert.
The 70,650 who filled the University of Phoenix stadium for Sunday's NFC championship game knew the history even if they were late to jump on the bandwagon.
They came early and cheered loudly until the very end, as if they couldn't believe it. These were the Cardinals, after all, and if fans needed any reminder of that, the miserly owner was down on the field as the final seconds ticked away.
Bill Bidwill won't get any credit for this because the Cardinals have been so bad for so long under his watch. In 21 years in Phoenix alone, his refusal to spend money on talent meant the Cardinals had only one winning season before this one. It was only after his son took over day-to-day operations that the purse strings finally were loosened.
But there he was, standing on a carpet of confetti after the improbable win, an NFC championship hat on his 77-year-old head. Bidwill has been called a lot of things, and now he can be called something Cardinals fans never thought possible - the owner of a team one win away from an NFL championship.
That's right, the Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl.
Let me repeat that, so it sinks in.
The Arizona Cardinals are in the Super Bowl.
"It feels very good, it feels very good," Bidwill said. "I imagine there is some superlative I can add to it, but I can't add to it right now."
Forgive Bidwill because he's a man of few words. Then again, there hasn't been a lot to say about a franchise that has been in his family 75 years and, until this season, had more cities it could call home than wins in the playoffs.
But on this day, in a stadium that rises like a spaceship out of a suburb once filled with cotton fields, there was plenty to talk about. Start with the aging quarterback who began training camp as a second-stringer and played like a man 15 years younger. And don't forget the soft-spoken receiver with braids tumbling out the back of his helmet who caught everything thrown his way.
Unlike other years, the Cardinals had players who were plenty good enough to win, even against a Philadelphia team that was favored on the road. For the first time, too, they had the quiet confidence of a team that wasn't supposed to be here but refused to crumble when all the good of the first half suddenly turned bad.
Standing in the huddle as they embarked on a fourth-quarter drive to erase a 25-24 Eagles lead, the Cardinals looked into each other's eyes and knew this wasn't going to be like so many games before.
"Nobody was panicking," Warner said. "Nobody was going crazy, hyperventilating or anything like that."
The Cardinals of old would have certainly needed paper bags to blow into by then. Those teams had so little talent that the ring of honor inside the stadium only lists Bidwill and the late Pat Tillman, the star safety who was killed in Afghanistan.
These Cardinals surprised almost everybody by beating Atlanta and then going on to dominate Carolina on the road. But the biggest shock would be the way Warner calmly led his team on a 72-yard touchdown drive that consumed much of the fourth quarter against a team that dominated the Cards on Thanksgiving Day.
"You could see it in guys' eyes," Fitzgerald said. "No one wanted to be the one to let the team down."
On third-and-goal from the 8-yard line, the Eagles called a timeout to save some minutes for a drive of their own. Over the stadium speakers, the song, "Don't Stop Believing" blared over the din of the crowd that hadn't stopped screaming.
Cardinals fans of the past might have laughed at the very thought. But these fans believed. They must have, because they sang along with it.
A few moments later, Warner dumped a short pass to Tim Hightower, who ran the longest 8 yards in franchise history into the end zone.
The celebration was joyful and tearful and seemed to last forever. No one was in a hurry to leave the stadium because this had been a long, long time coming.
On the field, Warner tearfully embraced his wife, completing a personal journey back from the scrap heap - a story almost as compelling as the one about the team he led to the NFC title.
"I just want to say Arizona Cardinals and Super Bowl in the same sentence," Warner said. "I like the way that sounds."
So did Adrian Wilson, the safety who has been with the Cardinals for eight long years and has seen more losing than anyone else on the roster.
"Tonight," Wilson said, "the Arizona Cardinals changed their stripes."