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Learning from their mistakes
Losing has helped NFC title game teams

TEMPE, Ariz. - The lessons of losing have not been lost on the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. One step from the Super Bowl, both can reflect on how tough times helped them get this far.

The Cardinals, of course, are far more familiar with the tail end of the NFL, having occupied a variety of divisional basements whether they represented Chicago, St. Louis or, now Arizona. And the Eagles, while they have stayed put in Philly, have not won a league crown since 1960. Although they've experienced far more success than the Cardinals, they have felt the sting of losing in the bigtime, including three NFC championship games and a Super Bowl this decade.

So can that much losing eventually help you win?

'Obviously, the lows would be the losses that we've had,' said Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb as he prepared for Sunday's surprising NFC championship matchup with the Cardinals. 'The things that stick in your mind in situations like that are the opportunities that you had that you didn't capitalize on; the Carolina game (in January 2004), the Tampa game (January 2003).'

McNabb refuses to view those defeats, plus one to St. Louis after the 2001 season - when current Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner was the league MVP and guided the Rams into the Super Bowl - as lasting negatives.

'No, as opportunities, just like any other regular-season game that we didn't take full advantage of,' he said. 'Knowing the magnitude of it, obviously, we win and we move on. But, I don't put them as low points in my career.'

The magnitude of being one step from the Super Bowl cannot be blocked out, no matter what McNabb or any professional athlete might say. For the Cardinals, one of six current NFL franchises never to reach the big game - hey, Arizona is the only NFC team never to make the conference title contest until now - there's isn't much more than a litany of losing to reflect on. So this mid-January stuff is totally new.

But so are the Cardinals, in makeup and attitude, safety Adrian Wilson insists.

'I think this team is a lot different than teams in the past,' said Wilson, the longest-tenured Cardinal with eight seasons in the Valley of the Sun. 'Just because I think we actually do want to get the organization turned around and not always have a sense of disrespect.

'Whenever you get out on the field, people always have that same old thing in the back of their mind, that we're the Cardinals, and you have to get that turned around and have teams come in and respect you.'

Respect the Cardinals. What a unique approach.

But a valid one after what they've achieved this season, taking their first division title since 1975, then winning as underdogs against Atlanta and at Carolina. Although they are not favored again - Philadelphia is giving four points in the latest line - the Cardinals hardly are a pushover.

Many of them know what it feels like to be a nonentity.

'When you think about where we were five years ago, to not really feel like we had a chance to win,' defensive end Bertrand Berry said, 'to be in this point, it's unbelievable. It's something I always thought could happen, but we had to actually go out and make it happen.'

Not even Warner, the eternal optimist with a history of winning that seemed to make him a misfit here, was certain such success would happen now.

'I really can't say what my expectations were,' Warner said, 'although every year I go in hoping to go to the Super Bowl and preparing that way. It's probably exceeded my expectations as well, but it's fun and I'm glad I'm here.

'It's funny because, even though we've exceeded expectations, now that we're here, I'm not satisfied.'

The Eagles have been this far many times since Andy Reid became coach in 1999. And they lost. And they learned.

'As a player, I think that you understand that the window of opportunity is not going to stay open forever,' Eagles star running back Brian Westbrook said. 'But if you have a very good team you could go back year after year and hopefully have the opportunity to achieve your goal. We have a very good team here and we really don't think about it, we really don't worry about the window of opportunity. We try to make the most of every opportunity that we have, and if we do that, then we'll be right where we want to be at.'