GLENDALE, ARIZONA (AP) - Kurt Warner is going back to the Super Bowl, a sweet journey for a 37-year-old quarterback considered washed up not so long ago.
Warner engineered Arizona's 32-25 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday in the NFC championship game, the culmination of an unlikely playoff run for a Cardinals franchise that had been the joke of the league for years.
Warner has been to the Super Bowl twice, in 1999 and 2001, as the ringmaster of the "Greatest Show on Turf" of the St. Louis Rams, and his cool leadership and ageless arm were perhaps the biggest reasons for Arizona's climb from the NFL's depths.
Warner threw four touchdown passes Sunday, three to the phenomenal Larry Fitzgerald. But his biggest was his fourth, an 8-yard middle screen to rookie Time Hightower, who barreled over the goal line to give the Cardinals back the lead with 2:59 to play.
It came at the end of a 14-play, 72-yard drive that used up nearly eight minutes of the fourth quarter after the Eagles had rallied from an 18-point deficit to go ahead 25-24.
Warner completed 21 of 28 passes for 279 yards with no interceptions. When he left the field, he hugged his wife, Brenda.
He broke down when he talked about it later.
"She's been one of the few people who's been with me from the beginning," Warner said. "It was amazing. It was just joy, telling each other and it was unbelievable. There's nobody I'd rather share it with."
The victory followed a 30-24 wild card win over Atlanta and a 33-13 stunner at Carolina in the divisional playoffs.
"We had our struggles this year and I don't think anybody really knew what to expect coming into the playoffs," Warner said. "But I saw a bunch of guys band together and believe in one another and really do something that nobody expected us to do."
His teammates said they couldn't do it without their quarterback.
"He's been here before," Fitzgerald said. "He's been where we're all trying to go. He's held that trophy up and we've leaned on him this whole postseason."
Warner almost wasn't even Arizona's starter when the season began.
"That had to be very difficult, but there was never any complaints," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "All he said he wanted was an opportunity. He got that and took advantage of it. To see the way he's played this year has been great for the game, in my opinion. To have a veteran player who's probably one of the greatest individuals you'll ever meet have success, after some ups and downs, is really why you play this game."
He was in a tight competition with young Matt Leinart in training camp before Whisenhunt announced he would go with Warner after the final preseason game. Whisenhunt said he thought Warner would do well, but not this well.
In leading the Cardinals to the NFC West title and their first home playoff game since 1947, Warner ranked second in the NFL in completions (401), completion percentage (67.1), yards passing (4,583) and passing touchdowns (30).
His early days in the league are well known, when he rose from obscurity by way of the Arena Football League and NFL Europe to get a chance to start when Trent Green was injured with the Rams.
"Kurt's an unbelievable guy," Hightower said. "He's the leader of our team. We're fortunate to have a guy like that. You couldn't ask for a better guy."
Online Executive Producer Nate Leding