They were good, bad and ugly. That's the story of the 2008 Cardinals, a team that stretched the chains of ecstasy and despair.

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — They were good, bad and ugly. That’s the story of the 2008 Cardinals, a team that stretched the chains of ecstasy and despair.

And where they’re going now, absolutely none of it matters.

They are a playoff team with a clean slate. Their competitive sins are absolved, their successes completely irrelevant. They are free to play dead or shock the world. They are perfectly capable of doing both.

“We’re three games away from Tampa,” running back Edgerrin James said. “To make it to Tampa and play in the Super Bowl, that’s super big. That would be one of the greatest things ever.”

Though folks in New England might find that bluster absolutely ridiculous, hope has been restored in Arizona. The Cardinals’ 34-21 victory over Seattle on Sunday might have been largely cosmetic, but it came with a sense of dignity and provided a spark of momentum. It was a good day all around, and just what this sagging team needed.

The Detroit Lions finished 0-16, meaning that William Clay Ford will likely pass Bill Bidwill as the worst owner in NFL history. For all the criticism the Cardinals have endured over recent debacles, at least they finished with a winning record (9-7). And for all the hand-wringing about their daffy division, at least the Cardinals went unbeaten in the NFC West.

It will make the coming week much more enjoyable.

Of course, that could be a problem, and a recent ESPN.com profile of Kurt Warner unearthed a disturbing anecdote about the makeup of this team. Seems the Cardinals quarterback held a pool party for his teammates over the summer, and hardly anyone showed up. You’d think a few of them would want to check out Warner’s trophy case or pick his brain about the Super Bowl, if nothing else.

It’s also why Warner delivered a passionate plea to his teammates after the game was over, telling them to commit every second of their lives to preparing for the postseason. That should be obvious to any team in the playoffs, but clearly, this group is more than a bit scattered and highly unpredictable.

“From this point on, you can’t have mistakes,” Warner said. “You can’t come out flat. You can’t be ill prepared. Or you’ll go home.”

There is reason to believe. The Atlanta Falcons are a physical team with a great running game, but they are relying on a rookie quarterback at a time when experience means everything. It’s a good draw for the host Cardinals, and maybe more than they deserve.

The coaching staff has also smartened up a bit, letting James out of the doghouse and back into his role as featured running back. Clearly, his presence does something to this team, both statistically and emotionally.

“History has shown that you have to have balance,” James said. “You’ve got to be able to run when they’re trying to stop the pass, and pass when they’re trying to stop the run. It’s really not that complicated.”

This game against the Seahawks was a potentially volatile situation. The Cardinals’ performance over the previous two weeks was so ragged that Sunday’s crowd had packed its venom, just in case. At three moments in the first half, the patrons began to boo.

But as James began cracking off effective runs and Larry Fitzgerald began plucking passes out of the sky, this team started to feel whole once again. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe it was a fluke. It really doesn’t matter. The only reality left is the reality this team creates starting Saturday.

“There are six teams in [the NFC playoffs]” James said. “And we have one of the balls that are in the little lottery machine.”

The Patriots, 40 points better than the Cardinals a week ago and out of the playoffs today, can’t be happy. Same with New York Jets fans, whose team racked up 56 points on the Big Red and also will miss the party.

Ah, but life isn’t fair, and neither is the NFL. You take what you can get in this league, and all that matters is that after 10 long years, the Cardinals have their shot. If they listen to Warner and stick with James, maybe it won’t end up in their collective foot.