TAMPA, Fla. -- One of the lingering images of Arizona's victory over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game came when Eagles safety Brian Dawkins, with a few yards of momentum, torpedoed himself into Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald -- and bounced off like a raindrop on a freshly waxed car.
Fitzgerald cruised into the end zone for the first of three touchdowns, but the fact that Dawkins, a vicious hitter, was discarded so easily was as impressive a snapshot of how tough Fitzgerald is, especially heading into Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday against Pittsburgh and its concussion-inducing defense.
"Every week, we play teams that say they are going to pound us physically," Fitzgerald said. "That's the norm in this league. When you have a good group of guys, people are going to try to take advantage of you physically. There is nothing unusual about that.
"We are looking forward to the test."
Therein lies part of the growth of Larry Fitzgerald, 25. He knows safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark will be trying to break him in half, yet his fangs are bared. It's talk right now, and we'll see how things play out the first time he goes across the middle, which he frequently does. But the fifth-year pro -- who has emerged from the abyss of meager coverage typically assigned to the Cardinals into the national NFL consciousness through his record-setting playoff run -- is behaving now like a star.
He is modest in his approach and demeanor, on and off the field. Yet, he is cutthroat when he needs to be. And he's needed to be for Arizona to be playing in its first Super Bowl.
He doesn't appear to be done, either.
In Arizona's three playoff games, Fitzgerald has caught 23 passes for an NFL-record 419 yards and five touchdowns. Going back to the regular season, he has surpassed 100 yards in five consecutive games, catching at least one pass of 41 yards or more in each of those games. He's on a 10-game roll with at least one catch of at least 18 yards.
What's most impressive is that teams know Arizona is going to get the ball to Fitzgerald. The frustrating part for opposing defenses is that players have been in position to make plays -- like Dawkins -- but Fitzgerald wins the individual battles.
There was the 42-yard touchdown catch between Atlanta's Chris Houston and Lawyer Milloy, who couldn't out-leap Fitzgerald to make the play in the Cardinals' wild-card victory over the Falcons. He followed that with an eight-catch, 166-yard performance in the thrashing of host Carolina in the NFC divisional round.
The Steelers will try to get Fitzgerald out of his zone by letting loose on him early Sunday. Pittsburgh likely will try to re-route him at the line of scrimmage, bump him when he crosses the middle and hold on to him in traffic. Fitzgerald expects the attention, but that's nothing new.
"I've seen a variety of defenses during the playoffs," Fitzgerald said Thursday. "Steelers defensive coordinator "Dick LeBeau is who he is. He has been in this league a long, long time. He has coached some outstanding defensive players and defenses. I don't think he's going to change what he is doing too much. I'm not the first good receiver the Steelers have faced, and I won't be the last."
Pittsburgh has allowed just one receiver -- Tennessee's Justin Gage -- to surpass 100 yards (104) in the past nine games. Five receivers in all have posted more than 100 yards against the Steelers: Reggie Wayne, Derrick Mason, Andre Johnson, Gage and Mike Walker. Pittsburgh has given up 200 yards, on average, in its two playoff games. Arizona has averaged 251, with Fitzgerald delivering half the total (139.9 per game).
Although Houston's Johnson led the NFL in receiving yards during the regular season (1,575) -- Fitzgerald (1,431) was second -- it's debatable if he ever played at the level Fitzgerald is right now.
Playing in a pass-first offense with two other 1,000-yard receivers (Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston) who allow for him to get single coverage at times has helped Fitzgerald. Arizona's cleverly crafted passing game also uses pass routes designed to clear lanes for him at every level. Fitzgerald catches screens, slants, hitches, deep balls down the sideline and in the middle of the field, and he's especially dangerous on crossing routes, where he's also most prone to a big hit.
Fitzgerald rarely drops passes, establishing enough confidence with quarterback Kurt Warner to prompt him to simply throw the ball in the receiver's area code when all else fails. Also playing to Fitzgerald's strengths, most of the defensive backs in the league don't have the ball skills to make a play even if they are in position, according to former Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis RamsPro Bowl cornerback Aeneas Williams.
"Very few defensive backs seem to know how to play the ball when it's in the air, which gives him a tremendous advantage," Williams said. "He is a special talent. He's huge. He can get down field, and he's comfortable with the ball in the air. He's also humble enough to do exactly what those coaches tell him to do."
Fitzgerald's willingness to be coached is a key reason for his career-best regular season (in yards and touchdowns, 12) and his postseason explosion, offensive coordinator Todd Haley said.
"When you studied Larry Fitzgerald last year, it was clear he was leaving a lot of yards on the field, upwards to 400, 500 yards," Haley said, referring to Fitzgerald's propensity to go down or get tackled shortly after the catch. "On top of that was him getting away from just strictly being a split-end receiver on the weak side (non-tight-end side) of the ball. That was something that Larry was not really comfortable with because he liked where he was.
"We stressed to him if he moved inside, it becomes a totally different game for a receiver. Now coverage is coming from different directions. I saw Larry last year as the big dog that you have that thinks it's a little dog. Outside of the (on-field) numbers, he needs to play like a big dog when the football is in his hands. He needs to play like a big dog when the football is being run by someone else. He's really bought into that this year, and he's become a much more physical player.
"As the year has progressed, I think you can really see the transformation. There is more to go with it. There is great potential."
Though Fitzgerald has developed, possibly, into the NFL's top receiver, it can't be ignored that fellow wide receivers Boldin, like Fitzgerald a Pro Bowl player, and Breaston have helped him get there. They have to be accounted for, which sometimes leaves Fitzgerald with favorable matchups in man-to-man or zone coverages.
With so much attention possibly leveled at Fitzgerald by the Steelers, Boldin actually could have the more productive game Sunday. The pair has taken turns for years serving as pilot/wingman, which is why they are the most formidable receiving tandem in the NFL.
Knowing what's good for both of them also is a reason Fitzgerald offered this week to re-structure the four-year, $40 million contract he signed before the season if that is what's needed to help the Cardinals appease Boldin, who'd like a more lucrative contract.
"On a football team, everybody knows [his] role," said Boldin, who said he has recovered from a sore hamstring that has plagued him for weeks. "People might say you're the No. 1 or No. 2 or No. 3 receiver. What does that mean? We have a number of guys on our team that make plays. So I don't see a guy as a No. 1 or a No. 2. I just see him as a reliable receiver, and whenever their number is called, they make plays."
Arizona's trio of receivers have made plays, but Fitzgerald has made the big plays, especially in the playoffs. He is the Cardinals' biggest weapon, and he has outshone fellow Pro Bowl players Roddy White (Falcons) and Steve Smith (Carolina) in the postseason. That type of ascension brings attention that Fitzgerald has never sought.
What Fitzgerald might not realize is that his teammates are the ones who are most appreciative -- and the ones most in awe.