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Cardinals beat Packers 26-20 in wild overtime finish to advance to NFC Championship
1:38 | NFL
Cardinals beat Packers 26-20 in wild overtime finish to advance to NFC Championship
Sunday January 17th, 2016

GLENDALE, Ariz. — At the end of the bat-craziest playoff game many of those in University of Phoenix Stadium will ever see, there was an overwhelming wave of sound from the crowd. One word, over and over.

“LARRY! LARRY! LARRY!”

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For it was Larry Fitzgerald, the receiver who has been the heart of the Cardinals team for years, through all the bad quarterbacks, through the heartbreaking loss in Super Bowl XLIII, through the injury to quarterback Carson Palmer last season that cut his team's playoff hopes short... it was THAT Larry who once again came up biggest in the most important possible moment. It was that Larry who made the difference in the Cardinals' dramatic 26–20 overtime win over the Packers in the divisional round. 

As the fans left the building, streaming around the media running down stairs to capture the story, the chant was heard even more forcefully.

“LARRY! LARRY! LARRY!”

After Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw the Hail Mary heard 'round the world, that 41-yarder to receiver Jeff Janis over the head of shutdown cornerback Patrick Peterson to tie the score at 20–20 as time ran out in regulation, it was then up to the Cardinals to try and claw their way to the NFC championship game they might have made last season were it not for Palmer's absence late in the year.

There was really only one guy to get them there. 

“LARRY! LARRY! LARRY!”

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The Cardinals won an overtime coin toss that had to be tossed twice by head official Clete Blakeman because the coin didn't rotate the first time (par for the course in this game), and on the first play after Arizona got the ball, Palmer bailed out of pressure, hit Fitzgerald to his left, and Fitzgerald was off. He weaved 75 yards downfield, breaking six tackles along the way from a Packers defense that had done a fairly impressive job of shutting Arizona's offense down for the most part, and was finally tackled at the Green Bay five-yard line. Two plays later, Palmer hit Fitzgerald on a cute little shovel pass, one that Palmer and Fitzgerald later said the team had been practicing for weeks, and the Cards had their game-winning touchdown.

“He got a big-ass play,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said of Fitzgerald's long gain. “It sucks. You play this game to win Super Bowls, and that is what greatness is defined by in this sport. Losing in that fashion, especially with the offense pulling that out, another Hail Mary is unbelievable. They are a team that lives and thrives on big plays, and our defense played a heck of a game for the most part, but obviously it has to go beyond four quarters and beyond overtime.”

That's about when the chant started up again.

“LARRY! LARRY! LARRY!”

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Carson Palmer had a series of reads on the winning shovel pass, and he said that Fitzgerald was pretty low on his list of progressions on the 75-yarder, but there really wasn't any doubt where the QB wanted the ball to go.

“LARRY! LARRY! LARRY!”

“It was very appropriate for him to finish the game that way, especially to finish the game in the end zone to get the win,” Palmer said of Fitzgerald. “He means so much to this team and to this community. It's spectacular, some of the things he does.”

“I was expecting somebody to be around, and I saw a lot of grass,” Fitzgerald said of the long play. “Carson did a great job of keeping his eyes downfield as he was scrambling and getting flushed out... it was a great game, hard-fought, going back and forth. It's a playoff atmosphere. That's what you're looking for.”

There wasn't pandemonium in the Cardinals' postgame locker room. More shock and unbridled joy. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell was beaming as never before, calling Palmer and Fitzgerald Hall-of-Famers over and over. Mike Helm, part of the team's media staff, came up to Fitzgerald and hugged him, saying “Larry Legend!”

To which Fitzgerald replied, “Lotta work to do.”

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A few reporters walked by Palmer's locker room and congratulated him. At one point, he simply said, “It was dangerous.” Patrick Peterson was sitting in the middle of the locker room with a swarm of media around him, relatively unperturbed about the Hail Mary touchdown.

“That was a crazy, crazy ending,” Peterson said. “To give up a fourth-and-20, then the next thing you know, you give up a Hail Mary... Aaron Rodgers, he's a hell of a quarterback. We knew it was going to be tough. But we just wanted to come out here and stick together as a team and find a way to win, and we did.”

Cardinals pass-rusher Dwight Freeney, the veteran who may have wondered if he'd ever get another chance like this, was heard saying, “I've never seen a play like that. I was In shock. I was in shock.”

How nuts was this game? The Hail Mary touchdown and the Fitzgerald magic that followed? They may not have been the most remarkable catches of the evening. There was the 60-yard pass from Rodgers to Janis earlier in the game-tying drive -- another long bomb -- and this time on fourth-and-20 from Green Bay's own four-yard line. And then, there was the touchdown pass from Palmer to Michael Floyd with 3:50 left in regulation. That throw was intended for Fitzgerald, but rookie cornerback Damarious Randall broke it up, and the ball floated into Floyd's open hands.

“Well, it ricocheted off of Fitz, and I was just there at the right spot,” Floyd said. “It hung up in the air, and I came down and got it.”

It was an extreme heartbreaker for the Packers, for a host of reasons.

All season long, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy had struggled to scheme his receivers open, and Aaron Rodgers felt the brunt of that with a season that produces some of his worst totals. The lack of ingenuity in Green Bay's passing offense had been a subject of discussion all season long, and in the first quarter of this game, it was more of the same: the same 3x1 receiver sets, the same iso routes, and the same relative lack of production. When Randall Cobb left the game with a bruised lung after an incredible first-quarter catch, it added more stress to a piecemeal receiver tandem that was already suffering from Jordy Nelson's August knee injury, the sprained MCL Davante Adams suffered in the wild-card won over the Redskins, and Ty Montgomery's December ankle injury.

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After Cobb's injury, though, McCarthy seemed to finally hit his breaking point, understanding that he would indeed have to break out a playbook that had more than five pages in it. In the second quarter, the Packers started using the crossers, slants, drags and comebacks that had been missing so much of the season. And they engineered a different strategy to the outside-the-box sandlot stuff that had been at the heart of most of their big plays—now, against Arizona's opportunistic defense, the Packers threw underneath over and over, and simply played the possession game with Arizona's usually-explosive offense. Green Bay had two consecutive 17-play drives in the first half, and though each ended in field goals, the game of “Keep-Away” worked to a point.

“Tonight was pretty much a microcosm of our season—adversity,” McCarthy said. “Time and time again, our guys fought through it. Our defense, keeping the point totals, getting after a great offense of Arizona. We were stressed offensively. I thought the players did an excellent job on the sidelines and just kept battling. We had a lot of opportunities. Our guys fought right to the end, but we knew those games come down to big plays. Points are about making plays, and Arizona made one more big play than we did.”

Adversity is one thing, but the Packers have lost seven playoff games under McCarthy -- and five of them were lost on the last play of the game.

As McCarthy was speaking about this particular brand of agony, he may well have heard the chant outside the visitors' press conference room.

”LARRY! LARRY! LARRY!”

In the Valley of the Sun, you're going to hear it all night.

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