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In record shootout, the Cardinals' defense has the final say

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- So much to chew on from one of the greatest NFL games -- playoffs or otherwise -- ever played. In honor of this epic game, we're going into the shotgun formation to try to cover as many angles of this instant classic as possible ...

• Still want to change the overtime rules into a two-possession format? Why? The proponents of the current sudden-death system maintain that even if you lose the coin toss, you can win the game by playing defense. That's exactly what was proven in Arizona's record-setting 51-45 NFC playoff victory over Green Bay here today before a University of Phoenix Stadium crowd that was left almost numb from exhaustion.

The Packers won the overtime toss, and yet the Cardinals won the game, thanks to linebacker Karlos Dansby's 17-yard return of an Aaron Rodgers fumble just 1:18 into the extra period. Arizona never got a possession in overtime, but nobody's going to bemoan it this week because the Cardinals ironically won the highest scoring NFL playoff game in history (96 points) on a sack and forced fumble by reserve cornerback Michael Adams.

How else could this one have possibly ended, but with a game-winning play by one of these two beleaguered and shell-shocked defenses?

Actually, Cardinals head coach KenWhisenhunt came up with the most novel of overtime rule changes, suggesting what everyone on the field was probably thinking once regulation ended at 45-45.

"It was almost like we'll flip the coin, and whoever wins the toss wins the game,'' Whisenhunt said of the explosive Cardinals and Packers, who combined for 1,024 yards of offense and 62 first downs (another playoff record). "[That's] kind of what you thought. We didn't have to go out and play it. But I'm glad we did.

"You know what, it's funny, because when we lost the toss, I thought our defense is going to make a play. I don't know why I thought that. I just believed, because we missed the field goal (Neil Rackers, 34 yards, with :14 left in regulation) when we had a chance to win it, that maybe destiny was going to smile on us this time.''

It did. And this time, destiny smiled on the team playing defense in overtime. Oh, if only the Packers hadn't won the coin toss.

• I don't know that I've ever covered a game where the participants had a better, more immediate grasp on the historic nature of what had just taken place. Players and coaches alike called it one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history, and not a word of it sounded like hyperbole for once.

"That's two really good playoff games we've been in within a year, and it's damn nice to win one of them,'' said Whisenhunt, referencing last February's last-second Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. "I know that's got to be probably one of best games ever played in the playoffs. And in order for that to happen, it takes two good teams. That was really a battle today. A lot of ups and downs. I don't know if I can take many more of those games, it's stressful.''

Then again, I suppose it's a matter of perspective. I caught up with Packers defensive coordinator DomCapers in the bowels of the stadium after the game, and in his long and distinguished NFL career, there can't have been too many worse days than this one.

"We haven't had many like this,'' said Capers, who's entering his third decade of work in NFL coaching. "I guess if you're offensive guy, you consider it one of the greatest games ever, but as a defensive guy you don't.''

When your defense gives up 51 points, 531 yards, 30 first downs, and forces one punt in more than four quarters, I guess I can see Capers' point.

• Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner played as close a perfect game as I've ever seen a quarterback play, completing 29-of-33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns without an interception. Do the math. That means old man Warner, at 38, had more scoring passes than he did incompletions against the Packers' No. 2-ranked defense.

I can't believe I thought this guy was washed up in 2004 with the Giants.

"Whew, anybody else tired?'' asked Warner when he hit the postgame podium. Someone asked him if Sunday's shootout reminded him of his Arena Football League days, when touchdowns were a dime a dozen?

"That was so long ago,'' he said. "[Today] didn't remind me too much of anything I've every been a part of before. But what a great football game. That's what playoffs are all about. You never know what it's going to take any particular week. Obviously today it took 51 [points]. But those are the fun ones when you win.''

Warner seemed surprised to learn that more of his passes wound up in the end zone than on the ground, but he did admit that he was feeling it all day.

"It was one of those things where we felt good with our game plan, and I think it was one of those things where you knew we needed them,'' he said. "You knew we needed every play. It was one of those games where I felt great, I loved our playing, and I felt like I was seeing everything well. And it [adds up] to 50 points.''

It was Warner's NFL-record-tying sixth 300-yard passing game (matching Peyton Manning and Joe Montana) in the playoffs, and his five touchdown throws tied his career playoff high, set initially against Minnesota for St. Louis in the 1999 NFC divisional round (Funny, but I was at that game, too).

"It was frustrating, but give them credit, Kurt's a heck of a quarterback,'' Capers told me. "When we covered, he beat the coverage, and when we pressured, he got the ball out of his hands. They made the plays in the critical situations. One of the things we've been able to do for most of the year is make plays on the ball and come up with turnovers. But we weren't able to get that done today.''

No they weren't. All because of Warner.

• Adams was perhaps one of the most unlikely of all potential heroes in this one. The backup cornerback did his job on the corner blitz that Arizona called in overtime, hitting Rodgers high enough to dislodge the ball. But when that same blitz was called late in the first half, he left his feet and wound up flying past Rodgers without touching him, which allowed the Packers QB to regroup and hit tight end JermichaelFinley for a key 44-yard gain.

Besides missing that sack, Adams was also called twice on pass interference earlier in the game. But there he was on the game's final play, crashing in from the left side of the Cardinals' defensive line, and jarring the ball loose from Rodgers on a third-and-6 from the Packers 24. The ball actually never hit the ground, going from Rodgers right hand, to tipping off his right foot, to Dansby's shoulder, to Dansby's hands.

"He kicked the ball,'' Dansby said. "He kicked the ball up into the air and gave me time to run up under it and get in the end zone and seal the deal.''

It set off a wild celebration in the Green Bay end zone, but the magnitude of his play quickly overcame Adams.

"In the end zone, when I sank to my knees and cried, that's when I let it all sink in,'' Adams said. "It was up and down all day, and more down than up. But, at the end of the day, I reached my ultimate high. I got to my knees and just thanked God and cried tears of joy. It's been a long time since I cried playing football.

"I think when I look back on it 10 years from now, it's going to be even sweeter than it was today. But to be able to be a part of that today, I thank God.''

After Adams missed on the earlier sack of Rodgers, Dansby said he gave his teammate what turned out to be very good advice.

"I told him if he hit the body, the ball will come out,'' Dansby said. "I told him that on the first [blitz], and the second time he hit the body and the ball came out, and I just made a play on it.''

• Nobody's loving life more right now than Rackers, who was being fitted for an eternal pair of goat horns after missing -- and missing badly -- on a 34-yard potential game-winner with :14 left in regulation.

"I just hooked it,'' a relieved Rackers said. "I just let the hips fly through and it started out left and it kept going left. I'm grateful my teammates came through and I don't have to sit on that one for eight months.''

Eight months? Who said he would get off that lucky?

Entering the game, Rackers had missed one field goal all season, going 16 of 17, even though he missed games in Weeks 15 and 16 due to a groin problem, and hadn't converted a field goal since Week 14 at San Francisco. So he was rusty, and that rust apparently didn't get completely removed by the 23-yarder he converted in the first quarter to give Arizona a 17-0 lead.

"When he missed it, I was like, 'C'mon man.' Is this supposed to be the highest-rated game ever?'' Cardinals defensive tackle DarnellDockett said of Rackers' failure in the clutch. "Then I thought back and I heard everybody saying, 'This is going to be the best game of the weekend.' I said, they were right. This was the best game.''

I suppose you can say Rackers did his part to add to the memorable finish.

• For the most part, Rodgers was magnificent in defeat. He completed 28-of-42 passes for a Packers playoff-record 422 yards, with four touchdowns and a 121.3 passer rating. He led his team back from deficits of 17-0 after the first quarter, 31-10 early in the third quarter, and twice pulled Green Bay even in the fourth quarter at 38-38 and 45-45. The Packers scored 35 points in the second half alone, with Rodgers throwing all four of his touchdowns.

But he also had his mistakes. He threw a horrible interception to DominiqueRodgers-Cromartie on Green Bay's first play from scrimmage, and had the game-deciding fumble on the last play of the day.

"I was trying to unload it,'' Rodgers said. "I should have held onto the ball.''

True, but the play Rodgers really wishes he had back was the first snap in overtime, when he missed a wide-open GregJennings on a deep middle pattern. Rodgers overthrew his favorite receiver by several yards, with Jennings at least three yards behind Cardinals safety AntrelRolle. The play would have ended the game right then and there, and Green Bay would have posted one of the most remarkable comebacks in NFL playoff history.

"I just missed it, unfortunately,'' Rodgers said. "When I came off the fake, I wished I had just a tad more time. Knowing that it was not (Rodgers-Cromartie), it was Antrel, he was up on him. I still felt pretty good about the throw. Unfortunately it was just a little too far.''

• As much as they fought back, the Packers in the end were doomed by their three turnovers -- the Rodgers interception, a DonaldDriver fumble on Green Bay's second possession, and the Rodgers fumble in overtime. That's so uncharacteristic of Green Bay this season. The Packers had just 16 turnovers in 16 regular season games, the fewest in the NFL.

"We had two turnovers in the first three plays of the game,'' Packers head coach MikeMcCarthy said. "If you would have told me that we would have come in here and went interception, fumble, sack in our first two series, I never would have believed you, especially with the two turnovers in the first three plays.''

• Given that the near-annual Warner Retirement Watch has already begun, the fact that the Cardinals quarterback took an abbreviated victory lap around the stadium after Arizona's dramatic win was interpreted as a potential goodbye to Cardinals fans.

It was, sort of. But Warner said it wasn't the goodbye that had the same meaning as many were trying to assign it.

"Everybody relax,'' Warner said to the media when it continued to ask retirement questions. "That was my way of saying thanks to the fans because (as the NFC's No. 4 seed) we're not coming back here this year. I appreciate them.''

Warner dodged the retirement question, but said he would only step back and make a decision on whether he intends to play in 2010 once this year's playoff run is over.

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