For the second straight season, the Packers saw their run end in overtime without the chance to touch the ball. The Cardinals squeaked by in an absolute thriller, 26-20, and advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Here's what we learned...
1. That was one of the best playoff games in NFL history, and thankfully we had Bruce Arians on the sidelines to end it in style. After a stunning Hail Mary finisher by Aaron Rodgers to end regulation, Carson Palmer spun out of pressure, ran into his own offensive lineman and then hit a wide open Larry Fitzgerald, who took it 75 yards into scoring territory. Arians went right back to Fitzgerald on the next play, and the play after that. The shovel pass was most definitely a tribute to Fitzgerald, who was exceptional on Saturday (eight catches, 176 yards and a touchdown), and you had to know that Arians would not want to end the game any other way.
2. The game was a string of iconic plays, and most of them were provided by the golden arm of Rodgers. Hopefully when this game is talked about 20 years from now, we'll remember a dart that Rodgers launched 58 yards in the air to pull his team out of a fourth-and-20. The Cardinals were relentless with their pass rush down the stretch, and Rodgers followed up the fourth-and-20 throw with the Hail Mary. The mechanics of this throw were ridiculous -- the equivalent of a half-court fadeaway in basketball. Kudos to second-year wideout Jeff Janis, who high-pointed the ball and shielded it from Patrick Peterson on the way down. If nothing else, we know the Packers practice their last-play scenarios quite thoroughly.
3. Now we've seen everything. Mark your calendars: On January 16, 2016, just seconds after one of the most amazing plays in football history, a referee went out for a coin toss, and failed to correctly flip a coin. The botched flip eventually awarded possession to the Cardinals, who stunned us with an incredible play to Fitzgerald. As a side note, NBC actually has a high-res slow motion camera focused on the coin during the flip!
4. This is one of the first times we've seen Arians' style questioned thoroughly. The Cardinals threw a pass at the end of the fourth quarter that stopped the clock and provided Rodgers with more time to work on the game-tying drive. The Cardinals also blitzed without mercy during Rodgers' two exceptional throws at the end of the game. Arians has coached fearlessly all season, and hopefully that doesn't change, but it's interesting to see the other side of his shoot-from-the-hip tactics. Rodgers was so certain that Arians was blitzing toward the end of the game that he was lengthening the speed and depth of his dropbacks at a significant level. Though the Hail Mary throw was a thing of beauty, he threw it with a little more confidence knowing that so many of Arizona's defenders were devoted to sacking him.
5. Palmer fought brilliantly on a night that just wasn't his. He struggled for the better part of four quarters on Saturday; he buzzed a few throws high, including a potential touchdown. He hurled a red-zone pick and nearly threw another that was magically deflected into the arms of Michael Floyd, who scored a go-ahead touchdown.
6. Poor Mike McCarthy. The Packers head coach has lost seven playoff games over his tenure. Five of those seven losses have come on the final play of the game. This was heartbreaking for the Packers, a team that played through a lot of adversity this year on offense. After Randall Cobb left the game with a chest injury in the first quarter, the Packers were missing their top four receiving targets from a year ago. Still, they battled back against arguably the best team in football -- a team that handed Green Bay a gruesome loss just a few months earlier. There were rumblings about McCarthy losing his job if the Packers did not perform up to expectations in the playoffs, and Saturday's game might have shown why that sounds so silly now.
7. The name Jeff Janis probably did not inspire much confidence in Packers fans before Saturday night, but he made a pair of tremendous catches -- almost to the point where it made us wonder how he managed to stay off the field for so long. A seventh-round pick in 2014, Janis had four catches for 95 yards in two years heading into the game. With Jordy Nelson coming off a significant injury and Randall Cobb's status up in the air, we could be hearing about Janis throughout voluntary workouts in a few months.
8. We will look back on this Cardinals roster as one of the deepest in recent history. The luxury of having the likes of Floyd and David Johnson as complementary players cannot be overstated. Johnson made a catch in traffic and gutted out a first down late in Saturday's game that was incredible considering his lack of experience. Floyd is starting to hold his own as a dominant presence in the red zone. Should the Cardinals' coaching staff stick together for the next year or two, it will be fascinating to see what becomes of Johnson. His ceiling is very high.