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Top 20 Games of 2015: No. 1 -- Packers at Cardinals

Final score: Cardinals 26, Packers 20

It was almost exactly 40 years prior to the best game the 2015 season had to offer when Roger Staubach heaved a 50-yard touchdown bomb to help the Cowboys take down the top-seeded Vikings in the 1975 Divisional Playoffs, and a new term in the football lexicon was born.

"I was kidding around with the writers," Staubach told the Dallas Morning News. "Then they asked the question. I said, 'I got knocked down on the play ... I closed my eyes and said a Hail Mary.'"

The Hail Mary. The rarest of successful football plays ... and to think Aaron Rodgers hit two of them last year. The second of which only served to push the Packers at Cardinals playoff game from fun matchup to ridiculous game in seconds. Larry Fitzgerald's clutch overtime performance moved this postseason thriller to a firm No.1 on our Top 20 Games of 2015 countdown. This sucker had everything, including:

» A beautiful touchdown catch from Michael Floyd to kick off the scoring.

» Eddie Lacy carrying 60 excess pounds 61 yards to set up the Packers first touchdown.

» Two insane plays called back from penalty; Patrick Peterson returning an interception the length of the field, and Randall Cobb making a one-handed catch that Odell Beckham didn't invent. Spectacular.

» Palmer leading the offense on a 14-play 80-yard drive, paid off on a ball caroming off Larry Fitzgerald into the waiting arms of Floyd.

» Green Bay failing to connect on fourth down with 2:38 left and everyone thinking game over.

» Rodgers completing two deep balls in the final minute that each had about a 1/50 chance of success, the second of which harkened back to the days of Staubach, putting this baby into OT.

» Cardinals making their own magic, hitting a Hail Larry in the extra period (see below).

All of this served to make that Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium special. The fact that most fans had to go online to figure out who Jeff Janis was made it even more so. While Rodgers received all of the credit, Janis was on the receiving end of both plays. The Hail Mary to tie the score at 20-20 was a phenomenal feat by quarterback and receiver, yet no one could argue that Janis high-pointing the ball over Peterson was more impressive than Rodgers lofting it 50 yards in the air.

Staubach's 50-yard prayer some decades ago would never have been if not for the waiting arms (and hip) of an undrafted free agent in Drew Pearson. Rodgers' rendition? A seventh-round pick from Saginaw Valley State in Janis. That, as much as anything, made Packers at Cardinals special. For the effort of the loser is as relevant as the spoils of the winner in the NFL's pantheon of greatest games.

Historical Symmetry

Janis' day was surely unusual. The guess here is that it wasn't in Mike McCarthy's game plan to feature a wideout who had been fifth in the Packers plans at best. Hmm. A Packers wide receiver making a huge, but unexpected, impact in an important postseason game, catching seven passes for two touchdowns ...

... sounds like an up-all-night, hungover-on-game-day Max McGee in Super Bowl I. McGee's line that day: seven catches, 138 yards, two touchdowns.

NFL history is cool.

Historical Symmetry II

So how many times has a player posted 145 yards and two receiving touchdowns on the road in the playoffs like Janis? Only eight. Here are the other seven guys, with some impressive names dotting the list:

» Frank Lewis, 1981 AFC Wild Card: 7-158-2 in win over the Jets
» Thurman Thomas, 1990 Divisional Playoff: 13-150-2 in loss to the Bills
» Michael Irvin, 1994 NFC Championship: 12-192-2 in loss to the 49ers
» Randy Moss, 1999 NFC Divisional Playoff: 9-188-2 in loss to the Rams
» Steve Smith, 2005 NFC Divisional Playoff: 12-218-2 in win over the Bears
» Calvin Johnson, 2011 NFC Wild Card: 12-211-2 in loss to the Saints
» Hakeem Nicks, 2011 NFC Divisional Playoff: 7-165-2 in win over the Packers

Irvin is a Hall of Fame wide receiver. Moss will be there in 2018. Smith and Johnson have solid chances of ending up there as well. Frank Lewis was a Pro Bowl receiver in Buffalo after winning two Super Bowl rings early in his career in Pittsburgh. Of course, Nicks had his heyday with the Giants, going on to win a Super Bowl the same season as his big playoff game against the Packers. And how about Thurman Thomas, a running back, putting up those kind of numbers in the passing game? That's why he has a bust in Canton, folks.

Will Janis enjoy the prolific career like these guys? Who knows? But there is no question his day was special. For a deeper breakdown of his performance, check out my colleague Matt Harmon's Reception Perception piece on Janis. It's a detailed, route-by-route look at where Janis succeeded in getting open in that game and what it might foretell for his future. It's definitely worth a read.

(Almost) Play of the Game

Rodgers and Janis' connections pushed the best game last season to overtime, giving us all an extra 15 minutes of exhilarating football.

Not exactly.

The first play was fun, though. On first down from his own 20, Carson Palmer took a seven-step drop looking straight down the field. But inside pressure from Clay Matthews, Jr. and Jake Ryan caused Palmer to scurry straight up the pocket. Moving to his right, the Cardinals quarterback saw Larry Fitzgerald standing by himself on the left side of the field.

Pure craziness ensued. Fitzgerald caught the ball and exploded like a 22-year old ... well, a 22-year old Larry Fitzgerald sprinting down the field. Matthews displayed amazing hustle circling all the way behind the pocket, seeing Fitzgerald catching the ball, then hustling 40 yards to try to cut him off at the Packers 45. Fitz felt him, cutting inside the safety jussssst before Matthews could close. Another nice move and two missed tackles later (including Jake Ryan who ran 90 yards downfield after blitzing on the play), the Cards had first-and-goal from the five.

Three guesses who scored the game-winning touchdown from there.

(Almost) Play of the Game 2

A few plays before Rodgers hit his second Hail Mary of the season, he connected on an "Our Father" to keep the final drive going. Down 20-13 with 55 seconds to go, and no timeouts, the Packer offense was confronted with a fourth and twenty. Good luck with that play call.

Rodgers dropped back into the end zone, and almost immediately had to spin out of pressure. Then Green Bay's franchise quarterback made a throw that would make any Bart Starr proud. Brett Favre, too. Throw Lynn Dickey in while we're at it. The man hit Janis in stride on the Cardinals side of the field. Nearly 60 yards, and the Packers were in business. Well, at least in business long enough for Rodgers to launch another (successful) prayer.

Head Scratcher

Palmer's middling play in this game, followed by a terrible conference championship at Carolina miffed more than a few folks. While he rebounded nicely from his two picks against the Packers (25-41, 349 yards, three touchdowns), he certainly looked off on a few throws. Both interceptions were bad decisions, particularly the red zone pick he threw right to Damarious Randall. Palmer tossed it flat footed.

Of course his six turnovers versus the Panthers was a whole 'nother story. Hard to figure, given that Palmer was the prime combatant to Cam Newton for what would be his eventual MVP trophy. The former Bengal and Raider threw 35 touchdowns while finishing third in the NFL in passing.

Why This Game is No. 1

This is the sixth season we've done the Top 20 Games series. Despite the fact that NFL competition is closer than ever, and that there exists so few "haves" and "have nots" anymore, selecting the premier game has been rather easy.

Much like the "Miracle in the New Meadowlands" in 2010 or Super Bowl XLIX, Packers at Cardinals stuck out as a game that fans will remember for years to come. And although neither of these franchises would find their way to Super Bowl 50, ask even casual fans the most exciting game they watched last season and this overtime thriller will usually come out of their mouth within seconds. My colleagues at NFL Network and were no different in that regard.

Watch Rodgers' second Hail Mary of the 2015 season tonight at 5 p.m. ET, then tell us this wasn't as entertaining a football game as there's been in years.

Visit NFL Game Center for more highlights and analysis from Packers at Cardinals, NFC Divisional Round.

-- by Elliot Harrison. Follow Elliot on Twitter @HarrisonNFL.

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