Aaron Rodgers did it again, but Larry Fitzgerald proved to be the king of overtime Saturday as the Arizona Cardinals withstood the shock of a Hail Mary at University of Phoenix Stadium and defeated the Green Bay Packers, 26-20, in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs to clinch their first NFC Championship Game appearance since 2008.
While the Cardinals could have recoiled in fear after Rodgers found Jeff Janis to help the Packers tie the game as time expired, Fitzgerald opened overtime with a 75-yard catch-and-run before taking a Carson Palmer shovel pass five yards into the end zone for the win.
Thanks to Fitzgerald, the Cardinals became the first team in NFL history to win two postseason games by scoring a touchdown in overtime, per ESPN Stats & Info. The first time Arizona achieved that feat was against Green Bay in 2009.
Rodgers had one minute, 55 seconds to drive 86 yards and force overtime after Arizona expanded its lead to 20-13 with a field goal, and he appeared to be dead in the water when Green Bay faced 4th-and-20 on its own 4-yard line.
However, Rodgers rolled out of the pocket and found Janis for a 60-yard completion before the second-year receiver miraculously hauled in Green Bay's last-gasp attempt to force overtime:
As far as improbable endings go, the back-and-forth finish topped the charts. For starters, Janis entered Saturday's game without a touchdown catch to his name, and he finished with two.
Secondly, the Packers faced steep odds of converting the fourth-down play, much less notching a game-tying score, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
Teams were 0-of-10 on 4th-and-20 or more this season before that Aaron Rodgers pass.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 17, 2016
Aaron Rodgers had 2 completions thrown 40+ air yards on this drive. He had 3 all season entering the game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 17, 2016
Rodgers was sensational throughout the evening, especially considering the context. After Randall Cobb left the game with a chest injury, Rodgers was left to work with Janis, Jared Abbrederis and James Jones—who went without a catch while working against cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Rodgers completed 24 of 44 passes for 261 yards, two touchdowns and an interception as the Packers lost on the last play of the game in the playoffs for the fifth time in seven postseason losses under head coach Mike McCarthy, per ESPN.com's Jason Wilde.
Palmer, meanwhile, completed 25 of 41 passes for 349 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. The star, though, was Fitzgerald, who now sits in a class of his own in the postseason, according to CSN Philly's Reuben Frank:
Larry Fitzgerald is only WR ever with 3 postseason games with 150+ yards. 166 vs. Panthers, 2008 152 vs. Eagles, 2008 176 vs. Packers, 2015— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) January 17, 2016
The Packers dodged disaster early, and it allowed them to push the Cardinals in ways few expected. Although they received a shot of bad luck after a penalty called back a spectacular one-handed grab by Cobb, they caught a break when an illegal-hands-to-the-face foul on Frostee Rucker canceled out a 100-yard Peterson pick-six.
The NFL shared a replay of Cobb's grab on Twitter:
Had Rucker not committed the penalty, Green Bay would have trailed 14-0 just over a minute into the second quarter. Instead, the Packers were able to tack on a field goal and show some fight even without Cobb.
Though the first half was devoid of big plays for the Packers, they hung tough and churned out consecutive 17-play drives that spanned more than 15 minutes combined to enter halftime down by just one point, 7-6, thanks to Rodgers' ingenuity on the run, per NFL Media's Bucky Brooks:
An eight-yard touchdown pass to Janis opened the scoring in the third quarter, and Rodgers' escapability facilitated the go-ahead score, as shown by the NFL:
And while Arizona eventually broke through and staved off elimination after Fitzgerald saved the day, it's safe to say Palmer didn't resemble the MVP-caliber passer who shredded opposing defenses throughout the regular season.
The start of the fourth quarter saw Palmer toss a lazy interception that was intended for John Brown, and the momentum swing had Brooks wondering if Palmer's relative postseason inexperience was to blame:
The most inexperienced QB (playoff experience) remaining in the playoff was Carson Palmer.. It's showing tonight #GBvsAZ— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) January 17, 2016
But now Palmer has a shot to redeem himself against either the top-seeded Carolina Panthers or rival Seattle Seahawks. Should Carolina come out on top Sunday, Arizona will travel east for a shot to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50. However, a Seattle win would set up a rematch of the Seahawks' Week 17 shellacking of Arizona.
With the Cardinals undoubtedly salivating over a chance to exact revenge on their bitter foes, it's hard to ignore the enticing storylines that would envelop an all-NFC West championship game showdown.
After Fitzgerald capped things off, he promptly celebrated, as the Cardinals' Twitter account documented:
"It's tough," Rodgers said of coming up short, per the Packers' Twitter account. "We've lost a few of these over the years where you don't touch the ball in OT."
As a result of not touching the ball, Rodgers now resides in a club with two future Hall of Famers, according to SportsCenter on Twitter:
Aaron Rodgers is the 3rd starting QB to lose 3 postseason games in OT. The others: Brett Favre & Peyton Manning. pic.twitter.com/J4RSVDCUsJ— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 17, 2016
"We know these games come down to big plays," McCarthy said, according to Wilde. "And Arizona made one more than we did."
During his postgame availability, Rodgers broke down how the Hail Mary developed and praised a couple of unsung receivers, per the Packers on Twitter:
Rodgers on Hail Mary TD: We made a little bit of an adjustment...Spin out to the left, put some air on it & give it a chance. #GBvsAZ— Green Bay Packers (@packers) January 17, 2016
McCarthy on Abbrederis & Janis: Very proud of those young men. They worked their tails off all year to get an opportunity. #GBvsAZ— Green Bay Packers (@packers) January 17, 2016
Following the insane finish, Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians tweeted out an inspirational message:
"It feels good," Palmer said, per NFL Network on Twitter. "It feels better than I thought. But there's no way we're done and satisfied."