GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was a night that left us numb, if also motion-sick and blood-sapped, a ping-pong-ish postseason screamer that reminded one and all why football remains an American obsession and thrill factory despite life-and-death ramifications and social ills. That it all happened inside a UFO-shaped dome, set amid the desert tumbleweeds, made perfect sense.
The final events, one after another, were from another world.
Summarize the masterpiece this way: A game-tying Hail Mary for the ages on the final play of regulation, courtesy of the redoubtable showman and discount double-checker Aaron Rodgers, was quickly one-upped on the first play of overtime by a 75-yard catch-and-romp off a blown coverage by ageless Larry Fitzgerald, who then caught a game-winning shovel pass on the next play. Both flips were dished by Carson Palmer, who’d played most of this NFC divisional playoff game in a skittish fog and should have had five balls intercepted, not two, and was lucky a late touchdown pass was tipped by a defender into the hands of his receiver, Michael Floyd.
Oh, and referee Clete Blakeman had to execute the overtime coin toss twice because the coin didn’t flip over in the air the first time.
Officially, the Arizona Cardinals beat the Green Bay Packers, 26-20, and now are one victory in the NFC championship game from Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. Loosely, just call it The Best Damned Ending To An NFL Game We’ve Seen In A Hell Of A Long Time, if not ever. What comes to mind is the Immaculate Reception, which I attended as a lad with my father, but the difference is, we had three sequences Saturday night on a similar level of shock and awe.
“Yeah, it’s a high there, when you tie it up on the last play of the game,” a demoralized Rodgers said, “and then you have the debacle with the coin toss, and then you don’t get to touch the ball in overtime. So it’s pretty low there in the end.”
Said Bruce Arians, who finally won his first postseason game as Cardinals coach: “I’ve been in some really crazy ones, but they are really bizarre when you lose them. They aren’t too bad when you win them. I’ll go home and have an adult beverage … or two.”
On any other evening, a sports nation would have been dry-heave slobbering over Rodgers, who left an all-time memory that no defeat ever could diminish. When Barack Obama chose Cal’s favorite son as the quarterback to whom he most relates, well, Rodgers left his most powerful example yet of POTUS’ description: “In the sense of you can’t be distracted by what’s around you, you’ve got to be looking downfield … not getting flustered in what’s around me.” Facing 4th-and-20 at his own 4-yard line, trailing 20-13 with 55 seconds left in the fourth quarter, he waded through his own end zone, spinning and twirling and then whipping the ball as far as he possibly could.
It fell into the hands of Jeff Janis, who had entered the game with four career catches and was playing only because Randall Cobb had become the latest injured Packers receiver when he bruised his chest on a spectacular, one-handed, first-half catch that, alas, was nullified by a penalty. Now, 60 yards downfield, Green Bay had life. Little did we know how much life. Three plays later, with five seconds left, Rodgers again dropped back, wandered and, as he was about to be hit by Markus Golden, lifted another prayer to Janis, who was running a pattern toward the goalpost. Somehow, he positioned himself in front of the All-Pro cornerback, Patrick Peterson, who suddenly was vulnerable. Janis leaped, caught the ball and cradled it with his right elbow against his belly as he fell into the end zone.
“I saw Aaron throw it. I tried to guess on the trajectory of it,” Janis said. “I just tried to jump and make a play.”
Said Rodgers, who executed an earlier Hail Mary in the regular season with another ex-Cal player named Rodgers (tight end Richard): “Golden got some good pressure, and I was able to spin out to the left. At that point, I just wanted to put some air on it. I don’t know where anybody was really. I saw Jeff briefly and just tried to give him a chance.”
Technically, because of a penalty, Rodgers covered 101 yards on those two throws. How utterly insane that he could craft such a miracle without gamebreakers Cobb and Jordy Nelson, who has been out since the preseason, and with only three healthy passcatchers. We’re not supposed to root in press boxes, but how much fun would it have been to have Rodgers dueling another native son, Tom Brady, in the Bay Area? Trust me, he’s more bummed than we are.
“I love being a Packer. This is tough, 11 years in,” Rodgers said. “The season ends very abruptly when it happens like this. You feel like you’re going to win the game. It is pretty disappointing.”
Don’t feel too sorry for the man. Olivia Munn was waiting for him at home. “As simple a word as ‘special’ is, that probably describes him the best,” Palmer said.
The difference between these Cardinals, and those of previous tragicomedy, is that they kept their poise and didn’t go on to lose in what would have been a historic choke job. Credit the equilibrium of Arians, who instructed Palmer to go out and make some plays after Rodgers’ breathtaking moment. All night, every time Palmer threw the football, gasps filled the stadium. He looked rattled, skittish, out of sync, afraid to make a mistake and quite ready to extend his infamy as the best active quarterback never to win an NFL playoff game. His every misfire was accompanied by the same sad optic: a shout, a wince, a profile of self-doubt.
Was this really the way he would handle his best — and perhaps last — chance to win a Super Bowl? At 36, after the knee surgeries and the missed seasons and the squabble with Cincinnati Bengals management that sent him to the Raiders for a brief and unsatisfying time, Palmer was going to slow-fade as Rodgers stole his show?
“Obviously, you don’t want to see that happen, but you’ve got to move on,” Palmer said of the Hail Mary. “The message on the sideline was, ‘Let’s go. We’ll get another shot.’ Thankfully, after two coin tosses, we got the ball, went down and finished it off.”
Fittingly, he targeted Fitzgerald, who has labored through the ups and downs of Cardinals life to enjoy a Hall of Fame receiving career. The Packers left him wide open, alarmingly so, in a historic screwup in its own right. “Carson did a great job of keeping his eyes up and down the field as he was scrambling and getting flushed out,” he said of the 75-yard play. “I was expecting somebody to be around — but I saw a lot of grass.”
The way it ended will re-spark calls for a change in overtime rules, especially with the double coin flip. Said Rodgers: “Clete had it on heads. He was showing heads, so I called tails and it didn’t flip. It was just tossed in the air and did not turn over at all and landed on the ground. So we obviously thought that was not right. He picked the coin up and flipped it to tails and he flipped it without giving me a chance to make a recall there. It was confusing. I think he was trying to avoid the embarrassment of what just happened and flip it quickly.”
But the coin flip isn’t why Green Bay lost. Though Packers star Clay Matthews suggests the NFL go to college overtime rules and not allow the game to end immediately on a touchdown, he was ticked off at the defensive breakdown. “Come on, man, it sucks,” Matthews said. “You play this game to win Super Bowls, and this is what greatness is defined by in this sport. Losing in that fashion, especially with the offense pulling that out with a Hail Mary, is unbelievable.”
Nothing, on this night, was believable.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.