From the top of the mountain to the pits of hell.
The Green Bay Packers forced overtime on Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary touchdown pass to Jeff Janis as time expired, then lost in the blink of an eye 26-20 to the Arizona Cardinals in Saturday night’s NFC Divisional playoff game.
"It’s really a high there, where you tie it up last play of the game and then have the debacle with the coin toss and then you don’t get to touch the ball in the overtime," Rodgers said.
The overtime coin flip didn't flip, necessitating a re-do, with Arizona winning the toss. On the first play, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer escaped from pressure by Mike Neal, ran into one of his blockers and found star receiver Larry Fitzgerald all alone at the 35. Fitzgerald split defenders Clay Matthews and Sam Shields just past midfield, stiff-armed Morgan Burnett to the turf at the 32, ran through Jake Ryan’s ankle-tackle attempt inside the 15 before being hauled down by Casey Hayward at the 5. One play later, a shovel pass to Fitzgerald won the game for the Cardinals and ended the season for the Packers.
"Heartbreaking loss here this evening," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Congratulations to Arizona for moving on to the NFC Championship Game. It’s tough to swallow."
The Cardinals scored the go-ahead touchdown when Palmer’s pass was deflected by cornerback Damarious Randall but caught by Michael Floyd. That gave the Cardinals a 17-13 lead with 3:44 remaining.
With Randall Cobb sustaining a chest injury in the first quarter, Rodgers had few options to lead an improbable comeback. James Jones was taken away by All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson and didn't catch a pass. The remaining receivers were Jared Abbrederis, who had caught nine passes during the regular season, and Janis, who had caught two. On first down, John Kuhn caught a pass for 4. On second down, Eddie Lacy ran for 1. On third down, it appeared Abbrederis was interfered with but no flag was thrown. On fourth down, Rodgers one-hopped a pass to Jones.
The Packers’ defense held the Cardinals to a 36-yard field goal, making it 20-13 with 1:55 remaining. The Packers had plenty of time, thanks to a foolish incompletion that stopped the clock. Taking over at the 14, Rodgers missed a wide-open Abbrederis on first down and was sacked for the first time of the night on second down. On third-and-20, Rodgers threw it 60 yards to Janis, who was grabbed long before the ball arrived but no flag was thrown.
Unbelievably, Janis got wide open on fourth down for a gain of 60 to the Arizona 36. With no timeouts, the Packers had to rush to the line. Rather than clocking the ball, Rodgers threw deep again to Janis but it was incomplete – an illegal-motion penalty on Richard Rodgers moved it back to the 41. On the next play, Rodgers had to run for his life and threw it away, stopping the clock with 5 seconds left.
Arizona, unlike Detroit on Rodgers' game-winning Hail Mary on Dec. 3, blitzed on the Hail Mary. Rodgers spun to his left and, just as he was hit by linebacker Markus Golden, flung a pass deep for Janis. The ball floated more than 55 yards and Janis caught the ball between Peterson and safety Rashad Johnson for a touchdown. Janis hung onto the ball as Johnson tried to punch it loose at the end. Mason Crosby’s extra point sent the game to overtime.
Ecstasy turned to agony minutes later as the Packers’ season ended in overtime horror in Arizona for the second time in seven seasons. For the second consecutive season, the Packers' season ended with an overtime loss.
"This is a hell of a football team we played here tonight," McCarthy said. "We clearly expected to beat Arizona and we didn’t make enough plays to get it done. If you’re looking for comparables and so forth, we clearly felt that we could beat anybody, anywhere."
Green Bay took a 13-7 lead about 5 minutes into the third quarter. Rodgers was intercepted on the third play of the second half, setting up the Cardinals in prime position to extend their 7-6 halftime lead, but Ha Clinton-Dix gave the ball right back to the Packers with an interception of his own at the 19.
On second-and-12, Lacy burst through a big hole, slipped, got up and gained 14. Lacy got the ball again on the next play, got a downfield pancake block from right tackle Bryan Bulaga, used a spin move at the 42 and was off to the races before running out of steam. His 61-yard run set up the Packers at the 8. On third-and-goal from the 8, Rodgers stepped up in the pocket and fired a bullet to Janis for the go-ahead touchdown.
Arizona answered with a field goal, with Palmer-to-Fitzgerald connections of 32 and 19 yards sandwiching a late-hit penalty on B.J. Raji. On first-and-goal from the 7, Fitzgerald was flagged for an illegal block on safety Morgan Burnett to doom the drive. The 28-yard field goal made it 13-10 with 5:08 left in the quarter.
Arizona got going again on its next possession, jump-started by a 22-yard completion to Fitzgerald that Packers coach Mike McCarthy unsuccessfully challenged. However, on first-and-goal from the 9 on the second play of the fourth quarter, Burnett’s blitz forced an awful throw from Palmer that was easily intercepted in the end zone by Randall.
The Cardinals led 7-6 at halftime, a score hardly indicative of a crazy first 30 minutes.
Both teams went three-and-out on the opening possession but Arizona gained 37 yards of field position on the exchange of punts. Starting at Green Bay’s 42, the Cardinals struck first. Rookie running back David Johnson converted a third-and-1 and a fourth-and-1, the second of those conversions setting up Arizona at the 8. On third-and-goal from the 8, Palmer hit Floyd for a touchdown. Palmer lobbed the ball over cornerback Shields and Floyd made the catch in the corner of the end zone against Burnett.
Green Bay settled for field goals following a pair of 17-play drives. The first of those scoring drives came at a huge price. On a third-and-4 near midfield, Rodgers caught the Cardinals with 12 men on the field and went deep to Cobb, who made an incredible one-handed catch at the 5 against Justin Bethel. Bethel, however, landed on Cobb. Cobb was driven to the locker room and was ruled out with a chest injury. He will remain in Arizona rather than fly home with the team, the team announced after the game.
Without Cobb, Abbrederis became Rodgers’ go-to receiver. Penalties nullified the big play to Cobb, but Rodgers hit Abbrederis to move the chains not once but twice. On another third down, Rodgers was pressured and intercepted by All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson, who raced 100 yards for a touchdown. An illegal-hands-to-the-face penalty on defensive tackle Frostee Rucker, gave the Packers a reprieve. Ultimately, Mason Crosby booted a 28-yard field goal.
On Green Bay’s next drive, Rodgers converted third downs with completions to Richard Rodgers, Abbrederis and Janis before the drive bogged down and Crosby converted from 34 yards with 57 seconds left in the half.
The Packers finished the half with a 166-75 edge in yards. Compare that to the Cardinals’ 260-70 advantage in the first half of the Week 16 game.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.