After Rodgers’ Hail Mary forces OT, Fitzgerald gives Arizona win

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) 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 title game.

On the first play of overtime, Carson Palmer spun away from a defender and throw across his body to an uncovered Larry Fitzgerald. The 32-year-old darted through tacklers for 75 yards as the screaming Cardinals fans finally drowned out the visiting Cheeseheads. He was tackled at the 5.

WATCH: Fitzgerald catches wide-open pass in OT, rumbles for 75 yards

On the next play, Palmer shoveled the ball to Fitzgerald who ran it in to give the Cardinals a 26-20 victory over the Packers Saturday night.

The stadium rocked with chants of “Larry! Larry!”

“As simple a word as `special’ is, it describes him probably the best,” Palmer said.

Fitzgerald, 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. He finished with eight receptions 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 2009 wild-card game 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.

WATCH: Rodgers’ incredible Hail Mary to Janis that forces OT

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 Johnsonand 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 – took the ball and scored a touchdown, denying the Packers a chance to touch the ball in the extra period.

“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 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. 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 for the touchdown.

“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.”

Green Bay dominated statistically for much of the game, taking a 13-7 lead on Rodgers’ pass to Janis with 10:17 left in the third quarter.

“I can’t say we played our best game,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. “We didn’t play well. We didn’t do enough to win. We had a lot of things we needed to overcome and they just kept battling.”

The NFL’s final 4 all overcame injuries to star players

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The list of players sitting out this weekend’s conference championships is almost as impressive as the starting lineups: Julian Edelman. Carson Wentz. Dalvin Cook. Dont'a Hightower. Allen Robinson. Sam Bradford.

Following the NFL’s season of carnage that claimed the likes of, among others, Aaron Rodgers, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, Odell Beckham Jr. and Joe Thomas, this year’s final four all overcame not only the odds – “Minneapolis Miracle , anyone?” – but devastating injuries to key starters.

“We have a tough and resilient team,” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long said of the NFC’s top seed , which is missing its second-year QB in Wentz, an MVP hopeful when he blew out a knee in December.

Even before Wentz’s injury thrust backup Nick Foles into the starting job for the playoffs, the Eagles lost nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, playmaking middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, versatile return specialist Darren Sproles, and special teams captain Chris Maragos.

Yet, here they are, 60 minutes from Minneapolis and Super Bowl 52.

“I think that starts at the top with Doug, because he sets the tone for being resilient and even keeled,” Long said of his coach, Doug Pederson. “At the end of the day, we have a tough group of guys.”

So do the Minnesota Vikings, who are trying to reach their first Super Bowl in more than four decades and fulfill mantra to “Bring it Home” and become the first NFL team to play the title game in its own stadium.

And they’re doing so behind Case Keenum, who crashed Tom Brady‘s playoff party along with fellow perennial backup Foles and Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles.

Together, the four quarterbacks left standing have a combined five Super Bowl rings, two NFL MVP awards and four Super Bowl MVP trophies. Brady, of course, owns all of that hardware himself.

Such is the panorama of these playoffs following a season of pain in which so many superstars were rendered sideline spectators with broken bones, snapped ligaments, torn muscles.

Keenum replaced an injured Bradford, who had replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater. Bradford, now back in uniform as Keenum’s backup, blew out a knee in the first month of the season, as did rookie running back in Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.

Behind resilient coach Mike Zimmer , who resisted the urge to quit just before he got the Vikings’ head coaching gig in 2014, Minnesota rolled right along. Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.

“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”

The Patriots are also a bunch of fighters; they reached their seventh straight AFC title game despite losing Edelman, Brady’s top target, to a torn ACL in the preseason, and Hightower to a torn chest muscle in November.

Play caller Josh McDaniels and Brady, who led New England to a fifth Super Bowl title last year despite the absence of Rob Gronkowski, adjusted accordingly to Edelman’s absence with another terrific year.

Linebacker Kyle Van Noy stepped in for Hightower and ranked third on the team with 73 tackles and second with 5+ sacks despite missing three of the final five games with a calf injury.

Van Noy’s sack total was just a half-sack shy of Hightower’s career high set in 2014.

“The thing about K.V. is he’s very versatile,” said Patriots safety and defensive captain Devin McCourty. “So we’ve used him a bunch of different ways. … He’s been a big asset to our team.”

The Jaguars are the healthiest of the remaining playoff teams. They have only one opening-day starter on injured reserve: former Pro Bowl receiver Robinson, who tore his left ACL on Jacksonville’s opener.

Four months removed from reconstructive surgery, Robinson is now traveling with the team, so he’ll be on the sideline Sunday at New England, serving as a mentor to a raw receiving corps.

“Every person in this locker room put in a lot of work to get to this point, with me being one of them,” said Robinson, who was poised for another big year after dominating the league’s best secondary in training camp.

His injury on Jacksonville’s third offensive snap created a huge void for the offense. Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns tried to pick up the slack, but they ended up on the sideline at one point with injuries, too, leaving rookies Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook to assume bigger roles.

Cole, an undrafted rookie from tiny Kentucky Wesleyan, had 42 catches for 748 yards and three scores in the regular season. He added a clutch 45-yard catch that set up a late TD in Jacksonville’s 45-42 stunner at Pittsburgh last week.

“I wish I could just wake up tomorrow and feel like I did Sept. 9,” Robinson said, “but I understand it’s going to be a process. I know I’ll be back to that point and better.”

Like so many other stars, Robinson will be in street clothes Sunday, cheering on his teammates in hopes of getting a sideline pass to the Super Bowl.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

With contributions from AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers Mark Long and Kyle Hightower.

Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Steratore will lead 7-person officiating crew for Super Bowl

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NEW YORK (AP) Referee Gene Steratore will lead the seven-person crew of on-field game officials working the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The other members of the officiating crew for the Feb. 4 game are Roy Ellison (umpire), Jerry Bergman (down judge), Byron Boston (line judge), Tom Hill (field judge), Scott Edwards (side judge) and Perry Paganelli (back judge).

The crew has 127 years of NFL officiating experience and 101 combined playoff game assignments.

Steratore entered the league in 2003 as a field judge and was promoted to referee in 2006. He has officiated 11 playoff games, including two conference championships. He was the alternate referee for the 2010 Super Bowl.

Under the NFL officiating program’s evaluation system, officials must be rated in the top tier at their position to be eligible for the Super Bowl. They must have at least five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.

Paul Weidner is the replay official.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL