GLENDALE, Ariz. — Just when the lunacy of January had struck again, and just after it struck the Arizona Cardinals with some of that scary old Aaron Rodgers lightning, Carson Palmer left the pocket, stepped aside from one threat, spun, turned left and spotted one of the greatest sights known to quarterbacking mankind.
He saw Larry Fitzgerald, alone.
“I just saw him out of the corner of my eye,” Palmer said.
When Palmer’s leftward throw floated well across the field and found the future Hall of Fame receiver on the first play of overtime on a berserk Saturday night, a great NFL memory set down roots. At the Arizona 34-yard line, the football found the 12-season veteran, the 32-year-old leader, the Greater Phoenix bigwig.
He began a cartoonish rampage.
“I saw a lot of green grass there,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald began romping up the left side of the field. He passed midfield. He ran past one futile grab. He cut toward the middle and ran past another. He looked as if he tried to carry the Cardinals’ heavy, hopeful season all alone, and more than that, he looked as if he could.
By the time he finished the 75-yard play destined to be storybook, the University of Phoenix Stadium audience roared. Towels twirled. It seemed that even the cacti outside might have trembled. With his 5-yard touchdown on a shovel pass from Palmer two plays later for a hairy 26-20 overtime victory, the Cardinals’ large ambitions would persist. They would go to the NFC championship game next Sunday, either here or in Charlotte. Fitzgerald’s local legend might even swell, a difficult equation to fathom.
In whiplash fashion, his Superman turn healed a stunning bummer. It came minutes after a final play of regulation that could have qualified as harrowing. Arizona (14-3) had looked to hold off the gritty Green Bay jalopy, with a 20-13 lead as Rodgers ran desperately to his left, ignored linebacker Markus Golden’s lunge and made one last heave from his 45-yard line.
The football made a great arc and then descended into the end zone, just as it had with Rodgers’ last-play, game-winning, 61-yard pass to Richard Rodgers on Dec. 3 in Detroit. With Green Bay all but shorn of healthy receivers, and operating much of the game with Rodgers throwing to two greenhorns, one of those two, Jeff Janis, leapt in front of cornerback Patrick Peterson. As a second-year receiver out of Saginaw Valley State, Janis had arrived in Arizona with four career receptions and had added six more. When he returned to earth, he had a seventh, a 41-yard touchdown from Rodgers that tied the score at 20-20 with nothing but zeros on the clock.
It wrought gasps from the majority, cheers from the usual sizable Green Bay minority.
Then and there, as with several other moments across the game, it appeared the Cardinals might end four stout months with three nervous hours and one long winter. Against a team they annihilated 38-8 only 20 days prior, they struggled against both Green Bay’s rehabilitated offensive line, which gave Rodgers ample time, and perhaps against their own expectations.
Palmer himself seemed to grind on occasion against a famous statistic, his 0-2 career playoff record at age 36. On the second play of the fourth quarter, with a lingering 13-10 deficit, he lofted a first-down pass from the 8-yard line to the corner of the end zone toward John Brown, when Green Bay cornerback Damarious Randall reached up and snatched it for an interception.
That made Arizona Coach Bruce Arians look visibly worried — “We have the tendency sometimes of making it too dramatic,” he said later — and it made another chance imperative.
That chance came shortly thereafter, when Palmer and Arizona began from their 20-yard line with 11 minutes left. As Palmer completed five passes, with two to Brown covering 40 yards total, they reached the Green Bay 9-yard line where, with 3:44 left, another case of January madness intervened.
Palmer zipped one hard and low toward a crossing Fitzgerald, who would catch seven passes for 169 yards after halftime (and eight for the game). But Randall, defending excellently, stuck his left arm in front of Fitzgerald, and the ball struck Randall and caromed. When it went merrily to the back of the end zone and directly to a crossing Michael Floyd, Arizona led 17-13 and looked hopeful.
Then, with the seconds ticking past 1:00, the Packers pinned at their own 4-yard line with fourth-and-20, things went completely mad. Rodgers retreated to the end zone and lofted a 60-yard hope that somehow made it cleanly to an open Richard Rodgers. That play, plus the Janis play, gave Green Bay two miracles in three plays. The Packers, who suffered an injury to receiver Randall Cobb on the last play of the first quarter to go with its injuries to receivers Davante Adams (last week) and Jordy Nelson (pre-season) — leaving Aaron Rodgers bereft of 227 total receptions from last season — had scratched together a chance to escape all the way to the final four.
They had benefitted from a hands-to-the-face call that erased Peterson’s 100-yard interception return early in the second quarter. They had allowed only one sack to a team that sacked them nine times on Dec. 27. Two weeks after they began the playoffs in the proximity of hopeless after sagging to end the regular season, they very well might have become the first No. 5 seed to host a conference-title game, had they and Seattle won.
It didn’t make much sense, and then neither did the first overtime coin toss, which made it all the way down to the turf without ever flipping over. “That was odd, huh?” Palmer said. The officials flipped it again, Arizona won it, and the first play came unglued, and Palmer spun, and Fitzgerald romped.
“I looked back,” Fitzgerald said, “and I saw him kind of shrug off a defender and move to the right, and then I saw his eyes come back to me. That’s when I just looked for the ball and tried to make a play.”
He did so and, Palmer said, “It was very appropriate for him to finish the game that way, especially to finish the game in the end zone to get the win. He means so much to this team and this community. It’s spectacular, some of the things he does on the field . . . He runs powerfully, he runs through arm tackles he sees angles. He may not outrun everybody on the defense, but he sees angles and cutbacks. He’s fast enough to run away, but he’s powerful enough to run through tackles.”
As he seemed to do all of the above, he seemed to do one other thing. He carried a big season. He seemed to know how.