THE ARIZONA Cardinals have gone from chumps to champs in the NFC West.
Kurt Warner rebounded from last week's poor performance against the Eagles, the defense scored twice and the host Cardinals clinched their first division title in 33 years yesterday by beating woeful St. Louis, 34-10.
The Cardinals, long the league's doormat franchise with just one winning season in the last 24 years, earned their first playoff berth since 1998 and first divisional title since they won the NFC East in 1975. As NFC West champions, they will host a playoff game for the first time since, as the Chicago Cardinals, they defeated the Eagles to win the NFL title in 1947.
Arizona's defense scored both of the team's second-half touchdowns, including a team record-tying 99-yard interception return by rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie with 3:11 to play.
Arizona (8-5) beat St. Louis (2-11) for the fifth straight time and extended the Rams' losing streak to seven games. After losses to the Giants and Eagles, the Cardinals improved to 5-0 against NFC West foes.
Warner (24-for-33, 279 yards) reached 347 completions for the season, breaking the Cardinals' record of 345 set by Neil Lomax in 1984.
Linebacker Gerald Hayes forced two fumbles by the Rams' Steven Jackson and tackle Darnell Dockett returned the second 11 yards for his first career touchdown to give Arizona a 27-7 lead with 4 minutes, 20 seconds left in the third quarter.
Jackson, who gained 64 yards on 19 carries in his second game back from a thigh injury, lost the ball on consecutive St. Louis possessions. The first stopped a St. Louis drive at the Cardinals 22. The second bounced into the hands of Dockett, who rambled into the end zone to boost the lead to 20 points.
Arizona took a 14-0 lead on its first two possessions.
The worst rushing team in the NFL, the Cardinals (22-for-37, 228 yards) gained 39 yards on the ground in a 10-play, 76-yard drive that ended with Tim Hightower's 1-yard TD run.
The Rams went three-and-out, then Warner's 36-yard pass to Anquan Boldin helped set up Larry Fitzgerald's 12-yard touchdown reception.
The Cardinals got the ball again late in the first quarter, but Warner's pass was intercepted by Ron Bartell and returned to the Arizona 6-yard line. Marc Bulger threw a 3-yard scoring pass to Jackson on the second play of the second quarter to cut the lead to 14-7.
Neil Rackers kicked field goals of 44 and 22 yards to put the Cardinals ahead 20-7 at the half. The shorter field goal came after Warner threw 58 yards to Steve Breaston. It was Breaston's longest career reception.
In other games:
* COLTS 35, BENGALS 3: At Indianapolis, Peyton Manning (26-for-32, 277 yards) threw for three touchdowns, Dominic Rhodes ran for one and cornerback Kelvin Hayden's interception return produced another as the Colts (9-4) routed Cincinnati (1-11-1). The Bengals lost four turnovers and Ryan Fitzpatrick was sacked four times.
* TEXANS 24, PACKERS 21: At Green Bay, playing his first game in a month because of a knee injury, quarterback Matt Schaub (28-for-42, 414 yards) marched Houston to set up Kris Brown's 40-yard field goal on the final play of the game as the Texans (6-7) edged the Packers (5-8), whose playoff hopes pretty much disappeared. Texans rookie running back Steve Slaton rushed for 120 yards and caught three passes for 40 yards.
* DOLPHINS 16, BILLS 3: At Toronto, Chad Pennington (23-for-29, 181 yards) completed his final 11 pass attempts, and hit Anthony Fasano for a 20-yard touchdown as the Dolphins (8-5) won for the sixth time in seven games. Buffalo (6-7) lost for the sixth time in seven games and were all but mathematically knocked out of playoff contention.
* BEARS 23, JAGUARS 10: At Chicago, Danieal Manning set the tone for a strong defensive effort with an early interception, and Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen caught touchdown passes for the Bears (7-6). Jacksonville (4-9) has dropped four in a row and six of seven.
* 49ERS 24, JETS 14: At San Francisco, Shaun Hill (28-for-39, 285 yards) passed for two touchdowns and the 49ers (5-8) sent the AFC East-leading New York Jets (8-4) to their second straight embarrassing loss. Joe Nedney kicked a 32-yard, tiebreaking field goal early in the fourth quarter and Bryant Johnson made a diving, 3-yard TD catch with 6:05 left for the suddenly solid 49ers, who have won three of four.
* PATRIOTS 24, SEAHAWKS 21: At Seattle, Matt Cassel (26-for-44, 268 yards) threw for a touchdown and no turnovers, and Sammy Morris leaped into the end zone from 1 yard on fourth down with 2:44 remaining as New England (7-5) rallied past the Seahawks (2-10).
* BRONCOS 24, CHIEFS 17: At Denver, Jay Cutler (32-for-40, 286 yards) guided the Broncos (8-5) on a tiebreaking, 95-yard touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter and the defense stuffed quarterback Tyler Thigpen on fourth-and-goal to rally past Kansas City (2-10). *