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Originally published Monday, January 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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NFL | Surprise: Arizona will host title game

Fewer words in NFL history are more improbable than these: The Arizona Cardinals will host the NFC Championship Game. In the latest example...

PHOENIX — Fewer words in NFL history are more improbable than these: The Arizona Cardinals will host the NFC Championship Game.

In the latest example of the Cardinals' incredible postseason good fortune, Philadelphia beat the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants 23-11 on Sunday. That meant Arizona stays at home to face the Eagles with the winner headed to the Super Bowl.

It's an amazing scenario for a Cardinals franchise that until this year had one playoff victory in 61 seasons.

"Obviously, we are excited that we have another home game to host the NFC championship at University of Phoenix Stadium," coach Ken Whisenhunt said Sunday. "It is huge for this organization, for our players, and especially for our fans."

The last of the tickets were sold out within six minutes of the end of the Giants-Eagles game, the Cardinals said. That includes additional seating similar to last year's Super Bowl that increases the stadium's capacity to more than 70,000.

The Cardinals are 7-2 at home this season, including a 30-24 wild-card playoff victory over Atlanta. That was followed by Arizona's 33-13 stunner at Carolina on Saturday night to send the Cardinals into their first NFC Championship Game.

"What an effort by the whole team," Kurt Warner said afterward. "When you get to this level you have to win as a team. That's what we've done these past two weeks. Nobody believed it. Nobody expected it."

On Saturday, five players intercepted Jake Delhomme's passes, including rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who has picks in each of his last three games. The player his teammates call "DRC" also tipped the ball that resulted in Antrel Rolle's interception and 47-yard return.

As they did against Atlanta, the Cardinals dominated Carolina at the line of scrimmage. Defensive end Antonio Smith stripped Delhomme of the ball, then recovered the fumble to set up the touchdown that put Arizona ahead for good in the first quarter. The play came a week after Smith sacked Matt Ryan in the end zone for a safety in the fourth quarter against Atlanta.

"It makes me feel good," Smith said. "I've been an underdog forever. It's about time we finally proved to everybody what we have."

Arizona dominated with one of its best players, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, watching in street clothes because of a strained left hamstring. He could be back for the Eagles.

Boldin tested the hamstring before the Carolina game but decided he couldn't go. He sounded optimistic about the coming week.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore are buzzing, too. The Steelers (13-4) were the only home team to win this weekend, beating San Diego 35-24. Seeded second in the AFC, they will play their division rivals, the Ravens (13-5), who knocked out No. 1 Tennessee 13-10 on Saturday.

The Eagles are three-point favorites at the Cardinals, while the Steelers are favored by five.

Broncos hire McDaniels

ENGLEWOOD, Colo — Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has agreed to become the Broncos' next coach, a team spokesman said.

McDaniels, 32, replaces Mike Shanahan, who was fired Dec. 30 after 14 seasons with three years and $21 million left on his contract. He's the only one of six NFL head coaches to ever get fired by the team for which he won back-to-back Super Bowls.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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