GLENDALE, Ariz. – There's no need to list Larry Fitzgerald's credentials. His reputation precedes him. He is the Arizona Cardinals' most important player, the face of their franchise.
The one receiver defenses can't leave open.
Of course, when the quarterback scrambles one way and the defense pursues, leaks can happen. On the first play of overtime Saturday night, the Green Bay Packers forgot to cover the best player on the field. Fitzgerald, near the left sideline, wasn’t merely open.
He had nobody within 20 yards of him.
“It was a broken coverage,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Coverage wasn’t the only problem. Fitzgerald dodged a maze of Packers defenders as he streaked 75 yards across the field. Sam Shields had a shot at him, but he overran the tackle. Clay Matthews pursued, got his right hand on Fitzgerald’s right arm, but couldn’t hold on.
Fitzgerald ran past Damarious Randall. He ran out of Morgan Burnett’s tackle. He made Jake Ryan miss.
By the time Casey Hayward wrangled him to the ground at the 5-yard line, the game was practically over. Two plays later, Carson Palmer hit Fitzgerald with a shovel pass, preserving the Packers’ season-ending 26-20 overtime loss in the NFC divisional playoff round.
“We blew a call,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “We blew a coverage, and he got open. I think everybody was kind of confused on it, but we shouldn’t be confused on the back end. It was a simple call for us. I think they were a little confused up front.”
The Packers’ aggressive pass rush gave the Cardinals problems all night. They sacked Palmer three times. They hit him another four times.
Finally, on the first play of overtime, the Packers got burnt with their aggressive pursuit.
“That’s what happens in those kind of broken plays,” Palmer said. “People will start turning, running for the hills and expecting a shot. He just did a good job moving, getting open and doing something special with the ball in his hands at the end.”
Fitzgerald made a habit of losing the Packers’ secondary in the second half. He finished with eight catches for 176 yards, but 170 of them came after halftime.
“It’s almost like (Michael) Jordan,” Cardinals linebacker Kevin Minter said. “You give the ball to Jordan.”
It would seem almost unfair to blame the season’s finality on the Packers’ defense. For three months, the defense kept Green Bay afloat while its floundering offense showed nary a sign of life. This defense, it seemed, was good enough carry the Packers to the Super Bowl, if only it got some help from the offense.
For almost four quarters, the defense lived up to those expectations. The Cardinals only had 184 yards through three quarters, well off the 381-yard pace they reached in the teams’ first meeting three weeks ago. After a 30-point blowout in late December, the Packers defense was stout enough to provide a lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Cardinals retook the lead with a little luck.
On first-and-goal from the 9, rookie cornerback Damaroius Randall undercut Fitzgerald’s route. Randall swatted Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer’s pass with his right arm. The deflection could have dropped harmlessly to the field, and if this wasn’t the Packers in a postseason game maybe it would’ve.
Instead, a team with fresh wounds from last year’s botched onside kick in Seattle got another wicked bounce.
Off Randall’s arm, the football arched over Cardinals receiver Jaron Brown, over Packers cornerback Casey Hayward. It fell softly into receiver Michael Floyd’s hands in the back of the end zone. The 9-yard touchdown gave the Cardinals a 17-13 lead with 3:44 left in the fourth quarter.
“You need a little luck sometimes to win games,” Hayward said. “That was one of those plays. We still had a chance to win the game.”
Yes, the Packers did have a chance.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers pulled off a miracle. First, he completed a fourth-and-20 with a 60-yard pass to receiver Jeff Janis. Two plays later, Rodgers found Janis in the end zone for a 41-yard Hail Mary after the clock expired.
Finally, the Packers offense was helping.
And the defense wore down.
While the defense forced a stand on its final series of regulation to give the Packers a shot at a miracle, it also wilted once the score evened. The Cardinals needed just three plays in overtime to drive 80 yards. On the first, they didn’t bother to cover the best receiver in Cardinals history.
“It sucks,” Matthew said. “You play this game to win Super bowls. I mean, that’s what greatness is defined by in this sport, winning Super Bowls. Losing in that fashion, especially with the offense pulling that out, another Hail Mary was unbelievable. This is a team that lives and dies and thrives on big plays. Our defense, we played a heck of a game for the most part, but it has to go beyond four quarters. It has to go into overtime.”
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