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Larry Fitzgerald’s brief but brilliant overtime heroics trumped another Hail Mary by Aaron Rodgers and the Arizona Cardinals escaped with a 26-20 victory over the Green Bay Packers Saturday night to advance to the NFC championship.
Fitzgerald turned a short pass into a 75-yard gain on the first play of overtime to set up his 5-yard shovel pass reception for the winning score as the crowd chanted “Larry! Larry!”
“As simple a word as ‘special’ is, it describes him probably the best,” Palmer said.
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 title.
It can’t be any crazier as 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.
Rodgers, in a play reminiscent of his final-play heave against Detroit this season, took the snap with five seconds to go in regulation, scrambled around and heaved it 41 yards to the end zone.
Jeff Janis, a 6-foot-3 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 scattered 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 through defenders 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.”
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.
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 to go, Green Bay was pushed back into a fourth-and-20 situation at its 4-yard line when 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.
Janis, who caught seven passes for 145 yards after having just two receptions all year, was hurt on his big catch and was helped out of the end zone.
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.
Green Bay dominated statistically for much of the game, taking a 13-7 lead on Rodgers’ 8-yard touchdown pass to Janis with 10:17 left in the third quarter.
NFL playoff schedule
▪ Patriots 27, Chiefs 20
▪ Cardinals 26, Packers 20 (OT)
▪ Seahawks (11-6) at Panthers (15-1), noon, KDFW/4
▪ Steelers (11-6) at Broncos (12-4), 3:40 p.m., KTVT/11
AFC: Patriots (13-4) vs. TBD, 2:05 p.m., KTVT/11
NFC: Cardinals (13-4) vs. TBD, 5:40 p.m., KDFW/4
Super Bowl 50
NFC champion vs. AFC champion, 5:30 p.m., KTVT/11, at Santa Clara, Calif.
Note: Pro Bowl will be played at 7 p.m.
Jan. 31 in Honolulu and air on ESPN