Glendale, Arizona – After being forced into overtime by another Hail Mary from Aaron Rodgers, the Arizona Cardinals wasted no time calling for the “Hail Larry” to get to the NFC Championship.
Fitzgerald was uncovered, caught Carson Palmer’s short pass and darted through tacklers for 75 yards as the screaming Cardinals fans finally drowned out the visiting Cheeseheads, before he was tackled at the 5-yard line. Then, he took a shovel pass and scored the winning touchdown in a 26-20 victory Saturday night.
The stadium rocked with chants of “Larry! Larry!”
“As simple a word as ‘special’ is, it describes him probably the best,” Carson Palmer said.
The 32-year-old future Hall of Famer, who still holds single-season playoff records set during Arizona’s Super Bowl run seven years ago, gave the Cardinals the signature plays that prevented what would have been a devastating loss for a team that has its sights on another trip to the NFL’s biggest stage.
Fitzgerald caught eight passes for 176 yards.
“As an elder statesman on this team I just try to elevate my game and make plays for my teammates,” he said.
The Cardinals (14-3) play the winner of Sunday’s Seattle-Carolina game for the NFC title.
It can’t be any crazier than this one, which unfolded on the same field where the Cardinals beat the Packers in overtime 51-45 in a wild-card game in the 2009 season and where Arizona routed Green Bay 38-8 three weeks ago.
“Losing in that fashion, especially with the offense pulling that out, another Hail Mary, is unbelievable,” Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews said.
Rodgers, in a play reminiscent of his final-play heave against Detroit this season, took the snap with 5 seconds to go in regulation, scrambled around and heaved it 41 yards to the end zone.
Jeff Janis, a 190-cm receiver pressed into extended duty because Green Bay’s top two receivers were hurt, outjumped defenders Patrick Peterson and Rashad Johnson and clutched the ball to his chest as he fell to the turf in the silence of University of Phoenix Stadium, except for the Packers fans, who went nuts.
“I didn’t know where anybody was really,” Rodgers said. “I saw Jeff briefly and I just tried to put some air on it to give him a chance.”
Arizona won the overtime coin toss — after the referee declared the first toss hadn’t flipped. On the first play, no one was covering Fitzgerald, who caught and ran to the 5-yard line.
“It comes down to a coin flip sometimes after a long hard-fought game,” Rodgers said, “back and forth, bizarre plays made by both teams and unfortunately it comes down to that.”
The Packers, already without wide receiver Davonte Adams, lost Randall Cobb in the first quarter to a chest injury. James Jones was neutralized most of the game with All Pro Peterson on him, forcing Rodgers to go to Janis, who had seven catches, five more than he had all year.
A strange play had given Arizona a 20-13 lead with 3:44 to play.
Damarious Randall, who moments earlier had made a key interception in the end zone, deflected a pass intended for Fitzgerald inside the 5-yard line and the ball sailed into the end zone into the hands of Michael Floyd for a 9-yard touchdown. Floyd also had an 8-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter, dragging his foot to stay in bounds and gather in Palmer’s high throw.
The Packers (11-7) took the kickoff but went nowhere and turned the ball over on downs, setting up Chandler Catanzaro’s 38-yard field goal that put Arizona up 20-13 with 1:55 to play.
With 55 seconds left, Green Bay was pushed back into a fourth-and-20 at its 4-yard line. Rodgers scrambled and threw 60 yards to Janis at the 36. A penalty pushed it back to the 41 and Rodgers threw incomplete before getting off his last completion.
“That’s Aaron Rodgers,” Arizona linebacker Kevin Minter said. “I think it was No. 83 (Janis). Man, he made a play, didn’t he? It looked like they batted it down and he just made a great play. My (darn) jaw was on the ground.”
Rodgers completed 24 of 44 passes for 261 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. Palmer, in his first playoff victory (in three tries) was 25 of 41 yards for 349 yards and three scores with two interceptions.
“It was a roller coaster on the sidelines,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “You’ve just got to keep all your emotions in check and go to the next play. No matter what happened on the last play, you’ve got to go good, bad or ugly on the next play, and that’s basically what our football team did.”