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'Special' Larry Fitzgerald lifts Cardinals to NFC title game

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer called him "special." Another teammate, wide receiver Michael Floyd, gushed about his mindset, saying, "He's not going to fail." This was how the evening ended for Cardinals Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The more his fellow players assessed what they'd just seen, the harder it became for them to create new ways to describe a star who is up to his old tricks.

The Cardinals wouldn't be moving on to next Sunday's NFC Championship game if Fitzgerald wasn't on their side. What ended up as a 26-20 overtime win over the Green Bay Packers should've been an upset of major proportions. The one key factor that prevented that was Fitzgerald going off in the same way he usually does at this time of year. As soon as he decided to take over the game, he became the one man Green Bay literally had no way of controlling.

The numbers -- Fitzgerald finished with eight receptions, 176 yards and a 5-yard touchdown pass that ended the game in overtime -- only partly explain his dominance. This was more about the impact he had on every play he was involved in, especially at critical junctures of this divisional playoff game. As Fitzgerald said, "I wouldn't say it's a switch (that gets turned on). Coach just called my number. I know my team feeds off my play so I was trying to make plays to build (their) energy and confidence."

It seemed the Cardinals had moved beyond needing these types of performances from Fitzgerald to advance in the playoffs. The last time he exploded like this, Arizona was an unheralded team trying to make a little noise during the 2008 postseason. It was Fitzgerald who played the catalyst in that team's run, as he set NFL postseason records for catches (30), yards (546) and touchdowns (seven) while leading his team to a narrow Super Bowl loss to Pittsburgh. This Arizona squad was deeper, more talented and blessed with the league's top offense. It didn't need one man to carry it at any point this season.

What we know now is something that is easy to overlook in the playoffs: Teams don't win unless their stars elevate their games. Green Bay received just such a performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who completed a 41-yard Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Jeff Janis on the final play of regulation. That one miraculous play might have given Fitzgerald even more motivation to do everything possible to lead Arizona into the next round.

Fitzgerald actually needed all of one play in overtime to let people know that Arizona wasn't going to lose. After Palmer scrambled out of a potential sack, he found Fitzgerald standing alone across the field and lofted a pass toward the receiver. Fitzgerald did the rest after that, weaving his way through various tacklers until Packers cornerback Casey Hayward corralled him at the Green Bay 5-yard line. Two plays later, Fitzgerald charged into the end zone after taking a shovel pass from Palmer.

Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians later joked that his offense had been working on that shovel pass for 18 weeks without ever using it. But it was the big play that preceded it that had everybody buzzing. "That is what (Fitzgerald) does so well," Palmer said. "He runs so powerfully. He runs through tackles. He sees angles. You have to hit him with everything you've got."

"He got a big-ass play," said Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. "We will have to go back and look at it. I'm sure with the pressure on the quarterback that coverage softened up a bit but I don't know for sure. He obviously got open and on that play we should have somebody on him if we don't make a play in the backfield. (That play) got us right there."

The most amazing part of Fitzgerald's big night was that it started off with him being practically invisible. The Cardinals have become so versatile on offense that Palmer didn't see the point in forcing it to his Pro Bowl receiver early on. So Fitzgerald only saw two passes thrown his way in the first two quarters. He wound up catching one of those for all of six yards.

The problem with that balanced approach was that it wasn't helping the Cardinals control the game. They led 7-6 at halftime and the contest felt very much like Green Bay had to be excited about its prospects. "Carson wanted to start out this game throwing short," Arians said. "And at halftime I said, 'Look, they are giving us chunks. We've got too many chunk plays in here for Larry and Smoke (Cardinals wide receiver John Brown) not to use them.' He was more settled down by then and ready to use them."

That halftime adjustment likely saved Arizona's season. Palmer found Fitzgerald on a go route up the sideline for 32 yards on the Cardinals' second possession of the second half, a play that helped set up a 28-yard field goal later in that drive. The quarterback found him again midway through the fourth quarter, when Fitzgerald took a short pass on second-and-13 and bulled his way toward a first down. That drive ended with Fitzgerald inadvertently involved in the outcome, as a Palmer pass intended for him bounced off the hands of Packers cornerback Damarious Randall and into those of Floyd for a 9-yard touchdown that gave Arizona a 17-13 lead.

Of course, all of this was prelude to Fitzgerald's glorious efforts in overtime. They might also be an indication of what Arizona will need moving forward. Fitzgerald was quick to remind reporters that 2008 was a long time ago. "That was a different team and a different time," he said. As proof, he pointed out that only three members of this current Cardinals squad were around for that magical run to the Super Bowl.

What we learned on Saturday night is that Arizona might have to lean on Fitzgerald far more than we expected at this point. This already has been a season in which he's reminded us of why he's a future Hall of Famer -- he produced a 109-catch, 1,215-yard campaign after failing to crack 1,000 yards in each of the three previous years -- so it only makes sense that he should add to his postseason legacy. Like many aging superstars, the 32-year-old Fitzgerald is discovering how hard it really is to win a championship in this league. Hell, he's playing with a 36-year-old quarterback who just won his first playoff game with Saturday's victory.

So don't be surprised if this is only the start of another dominant postseason by Fitzgerald. As Cardinals running back Andre Ellington said, "I saw one of our leaders take charge ... He got the job done." Like so many people who saw what happened on Saturday, Ellington wasn't stunned by what Fitzgerald can still do at this point of his career. He's basically just hoping to see a lot more of it for two more games.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.

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