No-brainer pick: Cards` title is top story of `06 BY R.B. FALLSTROM ASSOCIATED PRESS 12/28/2006 Two months after the fact, the Cardinals` improbable run to their first World Series championship in 24 years remains difficult to digest. Nine losses in the final 12 games of the regular season evaporated nearly all of a seven-game cushion. They were supposed to be the first team out of the postseason, given their unimpressive 83 victories, thin pitching rotation and injury concerns at center field and shortstop. Getting there turned out to be the biggest challenge for a team that played like the 100-win teams of the previous two seasons the rest of the way. Down went the San Diego Padres in four games. Down went the New York Mets, the National League`s best team during the regular season, in seven. The error-prone Detroit Tigers lasted only five games, and then came the celebration that left the clubhouse smelling vaguely like Bourbon Street in need of a good hosing down after another night of Mardi Gras revelry. Advertisement Hundreds of thousands of fans lined the downtown streets two days after the clincher for the exclamation point. Aside from Chris Carpenter, the pitching staff was filled with questions. That was before Jeff Suppan went from non-descript to the MVP of the NLCS, before Jeff Weaver revived a broken-down career and shut down the Tigers in the clinching Game 5, before rookie Anthony Reyes manhandled the Tigers in Game 1, and before rookie Adam Wainwright made the team forget closer Jason Isringhausen was injured. Jim Edmonds, his head cleared from post-concussion syndrome and his sore foot fortified by daily numbing injections, led the team in postseason RBIs. The opposition pitched around Albert Pujols for the most part, but the rest of a lineup fortified by late-season rentals Ronnie Belliard and Preston Wilson, picked up the slack. "Definitely, we put a postseason together," Pujols said. "We forgot about the struggles of the regular season and we turned it around when we needed to. "We got guys healthy and our pitching did an unbelievable job." The Cardinals have been overshadowed by the 100-loss Royals thus far in the offseason, losing out for the biggest free agents while general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa have pleaded patience. They returned from the winter meetings with -- tah dah -- middle reliever Russ Springer, while losing NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan. They remained in the hunt to retain Weaver and injured Mark Mulder, while the Royals lavished big money on Gil Meche and Octavio Dotel. This, after ownership freed new general manager Dayton Moore for more aggressive spending. Manager Buddy Bell underwent surgery for throat cancer, but was back on the job two months later. Across the state, Kansas City lost two icons. Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt founded the American Football League and was a pivotal figure in the history of the NFL. Hunt moved his Dallas Texans to Kansas City in 1963, and was a leader in the merger a few years that created the modern NFL. Without Hunt`s guidance, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson said his franchise and several other cities would have been left out. In later years, former Negro Leagues baseball star Buck O`Neil was a spokesman and face of that era of baseball. A two-time Negro Leagues batting champion, O`Neil, 94, was the first black coach in the major leagues and as a scout he signed several hall of famers. Hunt`s Chiefs missed the playoffs for the eighth time in nine years, falling short under new coach Herman Edwards, who took over after Dick Vermeil retired again. A bright spot: right guard Will Shields was named a Pro Bowl starter for the 12th straight season, tying an NFL record. The Rams remained alive for a playoff spot under rookie head coach Scott Linehan, mostly due to a very mediocre year in the NFC. Steven Jackson emerged as an elite running back with the first 2,000-yard season rushing and receiving since Marshall Faulk in 2001 for St. Louis, 7-8 entering the season finale on Sunday at Minnesota. Linehan replaced the mercurial Mike Martz, whose Super Bowl successes were overshadowed at the end of a six-year run by a deteriorating product and confrontations with the front office. Missouri fired basketball coach Quin Snyder, dragged down by the Ricky Clemons saga, before he could complete a disappointing seventh season. His replacement, Mike Anderson, is a Nolan Richardson disciple who teaches a crowd-pleasing, all-court pressing style, and appeared on the way to a fast turnaround with the Tigers at 9-2. Football coach Gary Pinkel produced a third bowl team in four seasons with the 8-4 Tigers playing Oregon State in the Sun Bowl on Friday. The St. Louis Blues finished last overall in the NHL, ending a 25-year playoff run, after ownership gutted the roster to facilitate a sale. With the franchise still straggling, Andy Murray replaced Mike Kitchen as coach earlier this month.