Michael Floyd

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 return of Fitzgerald

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You could be forgiven if you wondered just how good Larry Fitzgerald would be in 2015. Coming off an injury-plagued 2014 where he didn’t even have 800 receiving yards, and with quarterback Carson Palmer coming off a torn ACL, it seemed unlikely the 32-year-old would put up big numbers. Yet, that is precisely what he has done. His 706 yards are just 78 short of 2014’s total, and he is on pace for a career high in receptions. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable receiver in the league. How has Fitzgerald confounded our expectations?

Rediscovering the End Zone

Young Larry Fitzgerald was one of the best red zone threats in the NFL. Four times in five seasons, he caught at least ten touchdowns. Lately, six-point plays have been much harder to come by for the University of Pittsburgh product. In the previous four seasons combined, he had just 24, or less than he had in two seasons at his best.

In 2015, Fitzgerald is finding the end zone again. His seven touchdowns in the Cardinals’ first eight games are tied for second in the NFL, behind only Cincinnati Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert. By Football Outsiders’ numbers, he is the most valuable wide receiver in the league in the red zone.

Several things stand out about Fitzgerald’s red zone work. First, the Cardinals are relying on him a lot in goal-to-go situations in particular. His seven targets there are tied for fourth. Second, he is extremely reliable. Just two of the ten passes thrown in his direction have been incomplete, best among the 25 players with ten or more red zone targets. Third, the Cardinals are spending a lot more time in goal-to-go this year. Arizona receivers have been targeted 20 times in goal-to-go situations this year, compared to 19 all last year.

The Impact of the Quarterback

The last stat brings up an important point. The 2015 Cardinals are better on offense than the 2014 Cardinals were, but the 2014 Cardinals also had three different quarterbacks start. Drew Stanton did not play as well as Carson Palmer did, and Ryan Lindley was worse. How much did playing with Stanton and Lindley hurt Fitzgerald’s numbers in 2014?

The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is quite a bit. Table 1 has the details, relying on Football Outsiders’ cumulative DYAR and per-play DVOA statistics:

Table 1. Larry Fitzgerald’s Production by Quarterback, 2014-15

Season/QB DYAR/game DVOA Catch Pct.
2014/Palmer 27 41.3% 80%
2014/Not Palmer -15 -34.1% 48%
2015/Palmer 31 32.3% 79%

This says what Fitzgerald has done this year with Palmer is just a continuation of what he did in Palmer’s six starts last year. The red zone numbers were not the same because Palmer was not as efficient throwing to other Arizona wide receivers last year.

Palmer was injured at midseason and Fitzgerald suffered an MCL sprain two weeks later that caused him to miss the next two games and be hobbled afterward. How much did that hurt his performance, rather than the quarterback play? Only some of it. Even in Stanton’s early season appearances, Fitzgerald was not nearly as efficient as he was with Palmer.

Targets, the Lifeblood of Production

The decline in Fitzgerald’s numbers did not come from less usage. Both Stanton and Lindley actually targeted him more frequently than Palmer did. He was thrown the ball on 17.8 percent of Palmer’s attempts last year, compared to 18.5 percent for Stanton and 20 percent for Lindley.

This is one of the ways things have changed in 2015. Last season, Palmer and Stanton targeted Fitzgerald and four other players regularly, generally at least 10 percent of the time. This year, the Cardinals have concentrated on targeting Fitzgerald, John Brown, and Michael Floyd much more heavily. One reason Fitzgerald has put up such numbers is he has been targeted on 26.7 percent of Palmer’s throws.

The Return of Prime Larry Fitzgerald

The target data is just one more way 2015 Larry Fitzgerald looks like 2008 or 2009 Larry Fitzgerald. Those were Kurt Warner’s last two seasons and the last time Fitzgerald played with a veteran quarterback in the midst of an outstanding season. His 2015 target percentage is right in line with how often he was targeted in those seasons. Target percentage is just one number, but high volume and a good quarterback can go a long way.

Another way this looks like prime Fitzgerald is his red zone dominance. Playing with Warner, Fitzgerald led the NFL in receiving touchdowns in both 2008 and 2009. The rise of tight ends might mean he doesn’t do the same this year, but his six touchdowns from the 10-yard line and in are the most he’s had 2009. The numbers are not quite the same (his red zone catch percentage was not close to what it had been with Warner the past two years), but they are close enough you could say this is the same Fitzgerald we’ve seen before.

What It Means Going Forward

We have seen Fitzgerald do this before, so we know he can continue to do it. For him to continue his great season, health is paramount. The table makes it clear Carson Palmer’s presence is vital. Fitzgerald’s own health is of course also exceedingly important.

Arizona’s shift to a three-headed passing game means the health of the other passing game pieces is important. Fitzgerald is the most valuable receiver in the league by FO numbers, but John Brown is second, and he ranks ahead of Fitzgerald outside the red zone. The much-improved offensive line is also key. If the good health continues, Fitzgerald should continue his late-career resurgence even if his red zone numbers decline.