Leading Off

This Finish Will Not Be Topped
January 25, 2016
FOUR PHOTOSPHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDOH, HIGH Peterson, an All-Pro cornerback, up against a guy, Janis, with four career catches coming in—we know how this pass from Rodgers ends, right? Guess again. CARDINALS 26, PACKERS 20 We should all be lucky enough to age like Larry Fitzgerald. When the 32-year-old wide receiver known as Fitz is cutting across the field, you notice the fluidity of his movements, the danger he poses after the catch. When he's crossing the locker room clad in only a towel, you notice that he is ripped like Adonis Johnson in Creed. For further testimony to Fitzgerald's upper-body strength, consult Morgan Burnett, the Packers' safety whose hopes were high as he closed on Fitz midway through his wild, weaving 75-yard catch-and-run on the first play of overtime last Saturday night in Glendale, Ariz. Before Burnett could make the tackle, he found himself shoved to the turf, victim of a highly persuasive Fitzgerald stiff-arm. The NFC divisional playoff game, like that play, featured a series of unexpected twists and turns—or, in the curious case of the botched coin flip, a failure to turn—that got more remarkable, and less plausible, as the evening wore on. "My damn jaw was on the ground," said Arizona linebacker Kevin Minter, recalling Aaron Rodgers's final play of his season. The Packers' QB had forced the extra period with one of the most remarkable throws of his Hall of Fame career, an off-balance, falling-to-his-left, 60-yards-in-the-air parabola that found the pride of Saginaw Valley State (Mich.), one Jeff Janis, a second-year special teams ninja who entered last Saturday with four career receptions and zero TDs but finished the game with seven grabs and a pair of scores. That Hail Mary, reminiscent of Rodgers's season-saving heave against the Lions in Week 13, was made possible by a longer and less conceivable Hail Mary earlier in the same series. (No, a Hail Mary needn't result in a TD. And, yes, Rodgers had enough of them this season to complete a Novena.) Before it was hard to believe, this showdown was—let's be honest—hard to watch. Already missing three of its top receivers, Green Bay lost a fourth when Randall Cobb left the game with a bruised lung in the first quarter. Making do with Janis, Jared Abbrederis (he of nine previous NFL catches) and James Jones (cut twice since the end of last season), Rodgers was not his usual swashbuckling self. Until he was. Rodgers and Arizona QB Carson Palmer traded interceptions to start the second half, Palmer getting picked off yet again, on the second play of the fourth quarter, after which the slovenliness gave way to, well, craziness. It began with ... ... The Carom. Trailing 13--10, Palmer drove Arizona to Green Bay's nine-yard line. There he let fly what could easily have been pick number three: a pass intended for Fitzgerald, who was blanketed by rookie corner Damarious Randall. The dart ricocheted off Randall's left forearm, caroming 10 yards toward the back of the end zone, where wideout Michael Floyd gratefully snared it in stride for a 17--13 lead. "I'm so happy Mike was in the right place at the right time," said Fitzgerald. "That's a heads-up play." It would soon be followed by a correspondingly boneheaded play that gave Green Bay life—a miracle that set up further miracle. Let's call it.... ... Hail Mary I. In an otherwise giddy Arizona locker room, one player sat at his stall, his back to the room. Was he upset? Disappointed? "No, man," said cornerback Justin Bethel, holding up his phone, "I'm just trying to return all these texts." Perhaps Bethel's friends sought to console him for what had happened with 55 seconds left in regulation and Arizona up 20--13. After being sacked at his own four-yard line by Dwight Freeney (page 32), facing fourth-and-20—all has got to be lost here, right?—Rodgers rolled to his left and uncorked a bomb to Janis, who'd slipped behind Bethel. That 60-yard mini-miracle was the longest fourth-down completion in the last 15 NFL postseasons. Asked what he'd known beforehand about Janis, Bethel replied, "Number 83? I know he hadn't really gotten a lot of plays [this season]." Still, he allowed, "I knew they were gonna throw at him a lot, 'cause I was covering him." Such is life for any corner playing opposite three-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson. While Rodgers picked on Bethel without mercy—as will Panthers QB Cam Newton this Sunday—the fact is, he's holding up O.K. for a special teams stud who was pressed into service in Week 15, when Tyrann Mathieu tore his right ACL. And for the record, it was Peterson, not Bethel, whom Janis victimized on ... ... Hail Mary II. Noting that Rodgers had scrambled to his right before throwing that game-winner against Detroit, Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher dialed up a blitz to that side. Rodgers was a step ahead of him. Figuring that's what Arizona would do, Rodgers made adjustments at the line: He kept tight end Richard Rodgers in to block and shifted running back James Starks to the right. Neither precaution prevented linebacker Markus Golden from knifing through the middle, forcing Rodgers to roll to his left and turn his back to the end zone before uncorking that off-balance prayer. "The thing is, we executed it the way we wanted to," said slot corner Jerraud Powers. "Patrick was going to knock the ball down, but in the process he kind of knocked the ball into the guy." Elevating behind Janis, Peterson indeed served as a kind of backstop, slowing the descending ball and helping "the guy" (as Arizona defenders repeatedly referred to Janis) snag it. Tied at 20, the Cardinals had not lost, though one could be forgiven for assuming they had, based on the funereal silence that fell over University of Phoenix Stadium. Nearly as disquieting, for Arizona and Green Bay fans alike, was the peculiar turn of events later described as ... ... The Anomaly. On the coin toss preceding OT, Rodgers called tails. It was heads. But as the Packers' captain rushed to point out, gesticulating and aggrieved like a septuagenarian arguing at boccie, the coin had failed to flip! Indeed, it had remained flat, hovercraftlike, during its rise and fall. A tweet from the authoritative @FootballZebras explained that the NFL officials' manual "allows for voided toss in case of an anomaly." Finding this anomalous, referee Clete Blakeman called for a do-over. Arizona won again, setting the stage for ... ... The Ramble. The 75-yard pickup on the first snap of OT began with an uncharacteristically balletic escape from three defenders by Palmer, who then chucked the ball to Fitz, camped out undetected in the left flat. Having delivered his team to the doorstep of victory, it was fitting that the wideout should then deliver ... ... The Knockout. Two plays later, with Fitzgerald lined up left in the slot, Palmer took a shotgun snap. Crashing down from his right came outside linebacker Mike Neal, deliberately unblocked. "If the end sees me," said Fitzgerald, who snuck underneath the left side of his line, "[Palmer] will throw a pass. If he attacks [Palmer], then I come underneath." With Neal bearing down on Palmer, the QB nonchalantly shoveled the ball to Fitzgerald, whose five-yard touchdown ended Green Bay's season, and one of the NFL's more thrilling playoff games, 26--20. "I've never been part of this kind of finish ever. Ever," repeated Freeney, the Arizona sackmeister, who then excused himself to check on his mother. "I can only imagine what she was feeling."
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDHAIL, SEIZER Janis's miracle grab—his second in a span of four plays—pushed the Pack into OT and reinforced the thrower's status as one hail of a clutch quarterback. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDSPLITTING IMAGE Once he made his catch in the flat on the first play of OT, it took Fitzgerald all of 11 seconds, to weave through the defense and traverse the field, from Arizona's 20-yard line to Green Bay's five. PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDFLIP THE SCRIPT The Cardinals relished Fitzgerald's twisty five-yard capper, a TD pitch that lifted them from gloom and doom to the NFC championship game.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)