SportsMonday

It took a week to at least begin to process the headline: "The Arizona Cardinals have won the NFC Championship and are going to the Super Bowl." Thank goodness really for the (usually ridiculous) two-week break between the conference championships and the Super Bowl because America needs this extra time to start to re-orient itself to a sports world turned upside down. I know I won't fully accept this state of affairs until . . . ah . . . I just don't think I can do it at all. The Tampa Bay Rays made the World Series and I just shrugged. They'd only been around a little more than a decade. The Giants were certainly a longshot to make the Super Bowl last year. They were playing barely mediocre football all season before heating up late.

But the football Cardinals . . . as I have noted once or twice before . . . the Cardinals have sucked for six decades. Sixty years! They won a title in 1947 and have barely sniffed the playoffs since, let alone a championship game. I am nothing less than aghast at the arrival of the Cardinals at this highest of pro football heights. And there's a decent chance they'll win. My confident friend Jim R. pronounced last week. "The Cardinals are going to lose by 21 points," and then added, "Of course, I've said they were going to lose by 21 before all their playoff games."

The team from Arizona has the better quarterback. It has just the scheme to counter Pittsburgh's blitzing defense. The Cardinals defense has been coming on. Still, Arizona has enjoyed a run of beating up on quarterbacks done in by tragic flaws. In the first round, Atlanta's Matt Ryan never did figure out that he wasn't varying his snap count enough. The Cardinals knew exactly when plays were starting and used that knowledge to wreak havoc and make several big plays including the biggest, in which a lineman shot a gap into the backfield, forced Michael Turner to fumble a handoff a split second after he received it and then returned for a touchdown near the start of the second half.

In the second round, Carolina's Jake Delhomme played so poorly we're still expecting a big story any day now detailing how and why he was forced by gamblers to throw the game. He fumbled and tossed five picks, none of which even came close to being anyone else's fault but his own.

Finally, in the NFC final Meanwhile, Giant quarterback Eli Manning Eagles quarterback came up short early and often. It turns out the Giants weren't disadvantaged when they didn't play a playoff game at home last year. They needed to be on the road to make their Super Bowl run because that meant New York wouldn't have to play at home at the Meadowlands, where the prevailing winds often take a cruel toll on Eli's less than perfect spirals. That left it up to Donovan McNabb and the Eagles to take down the Cardinals, and they too fell short. Anyone here completely confident Ben Roethlisberger won't hold the ball too long too often and either take costly sacks or unleash a few last-second heaves that get picked off on Sunday? Me neither.

Fighting Illini
My sports viewing choices late Saturday afternoon included figure skating, Winter X Games and college basketball. So I busted out the sanitizer and took remote in hand with the revitalized Fighting Illini due to take the court versus Wisconsin. Illinois, which was tied for second in the Big Ten going in, slipped the yoke of an untenable team dynamic before the season when Jamar Smith got himself kicked off the squad. Smith was the guy who had left teammate Brian Carlwell for dead after drinking heavily, driving Carlwell home on an icy road and smashing into a tree in February 2007 season. Smith then managed to get his car back to his dorm but headed on inside without calling anyone or doing anything else about the gravely wounded teammate still sitting in the passenger seat of his car. Fortunately a bystander noticed Carlwell sitting there in a near-coma on that icy and bitter cold night and called the authorities. Reports have indicated he has just about completely recovered.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber declined to take the obviously correct course and toss Smith off the team. He knew his team was dangerously depleted at shooting guard, Smith's position, and he knew he risked alienating folks in Peoria, Smith's hometown and a consistent basketball talent producer over the past few decades. But then Carlwell transferred out (he's on the sideline this season but plans to suit up for San Diego State next time around), and left the Illini in the position of supporting the criminal at the same time it had abandoned the victim. Fortunately for Illinois, it was able to win a recruiting battle for troubled Kentucky freshman shooting guard Alex Legion midway through the 2007-08 season. So there was no longer a critical shortage of two guards. And then Smith was caught drinking again in the fall and Weber couldn't kick him off the team fast enough. And sure enough a team that fought its coach throughout last season has found harmony this time around on its way to a national ranking and a tie for second in the Big Ten.

On Saturday, the Illini managed to hold off a much weaker than usual Wisconsin team thanks almost exclusively to the individual excellence of sophomore guard Demetri McCamey who scored twice as many points (25) and doled out more than twice as many assists (7) as any of his teammates. The key to this season's future will be whether Illinois can find a way to slide not-good-enough seniors Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham into comfy spots on the bench They took turns catching late inbounds passes and freezing, leading to a traveling violation and a held-ball (Frazier was lucky when Illinois got the ball on the alternate possession). Legion is still coming off the bench but the sooner he is firmly ensconsed in the two-guard spot late in games alongside lead-guard McCamey, the better.

Bullseye
I think everyone should just get off the Bulls' back. This is obviously a rebuilding season and general manager John Paxson obviously has a master plan that will kick into gear any time now. And I can tell all of this from my cheap seat in front of my television. I suppose if I had to pay full price for a seat at the UC, I might feel differently but hey, what's the hurry? I'm sure the Bulls will bounce back big-time next season or the season after at the absolute latest. Vinny Del Negro can keep the head coaching seat warm for a little while and then Coach Santa can come in and bring this team right back to respectability.

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Jim Coffman brings you the city's best weekend sports roundup every Monday because he loves you. You can write to him personally! Please include a real name if you would like your comments to be considered for publication.


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