Karlos Dansby started the game with a big play and ended it with a big play, with his 17-yard return of an Aaron Rodgers fumble in overtime giving the Arizona Cardinals a 51-45 victory over Green Bay in a wild, wild NFC wild card game on Sunday in Glendale, Ariz.
The Packers appeared dead after falling behind 31-10 on the first possession of the third quarter, but nobody bothered to tell Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley. In a heart-stopping duel with the ageless Kurt Warner, Rodgers led the Packers from behind again and again. His touchdown pass to Spencer Havner, of all people, tied the game at 45.
But there was 1:52 on the clock, and the way this game played out, you knew it was too much time. Warner, who missed on only four passes in the entire game, drove the Cardinals with ease, but Neil Rackers -- who had missed one field goal attempt all season -- yanked a 34-yarder far to the left, and the Packers survived to overtime.
The Packers won the coin toss, and in a game featuring 1,026 yards of total offense, they had a great shot to advance to next weekend's divisional game at New Orleans. Instead, on third-and-5 -- moments after he just missed an open Jennings running free deep down the middle -- Rodgers held the ball a tick too long and got the ball jarred loose by defensive back Michael Adams. The ball bounced off Rodgers' foot and right into the breadbasket of Dansby, who ran untouched for the winning points.
It was the playoff-record 13th touchdown and 96th points of the game and an unlikely end to a game in which neither defense could stop the opposing offense for most of the game.
The first half was an abject disaster for Green Bay. The Packers -- who had a league-low 16 turnovers -- gave it up on their first two passing plays, and Dansby had a hand in both.
Rodgers had the lowest interception percentage in the NFL and in Packers history but threw into coverage while being flushed from the pocket on the first play of the game. Dansby had the deflection and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie came up with the interception. On the next possession, Rodgers threw quick to Donald Driver, who got the ball stripped by Dansby.
The Cardinals turned both turnovers into touchdowns, and barely 5 minutes into the game, it was 14-0.
Arizona led 24-10 at halftime, and it quickly become 31-10 when Larry Fitzgerald got free for a 33-yard touchdown when Woodson fell to the turf when their feet got tangled up. Right about the time the game looked over, the Packers roared to life. Two singular efforts by Jennings -- an amazing catch and run and an even better one-handed catch in the end zone -- made it 31-17. The Packers then inexplicably caught the Cardinals napping with an onside kick, which Brandon Underwood recovered. That set up a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson to make it a one-score game.
Fitzgerald ran over Woodson to get free for a touchdown, but Rodgers answered with a 30-yard score to James Jones on fourth-and-5. When the Packers' defense finally forced a punt, Green Bay pounced with a 38-yard completion to Finley and a 27-yard completion to Driver, setting up John Kuhn's 2-yard plunge to tie the game at 38. Warner's fifth touchdown pass of the game, a 17-yarder to Steve Breaston, made it 45-38 with 4:55 remaining.
The refs blew the call on the big play.
Matt York/AP Images
Kurt Warner was nothing short of remarkable. He completed 29-of-33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns. With his receivers running free through the Packers' secondary, the Cardinals punted just once. His passer rating was a near-perfect 154.1.
Minus-2: The Packers were a league-best plus-24 in turnovers during the regular season while the Cardinals were minus-7. In this game, however, the Cardinals won the turnover battle 3-1.
"That's probably one of the best games ever played in the playoffs," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. The other perspective? "It's clearly one of the toughest losses I've been a part of," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I'm very proud of our football team and fight. This is a hard game to swallow."
The other things you need to know
— Had the ball hit the ground rather than Rodgers' foot on his overtime fumble, the Packers would have been off the hook.
Asked about the "tuck rule," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told Packer Report: "The ball never hit the ground. If it was ruled a forward pass, it would have been an interception. ‘Tuck' is used to determine whether it's a fumble or incomplete pass after the ball hits the ground."
— Not surprisingly, the Packers' playoff record was rewritten. Among them: total offense, 493 (479 vs. Carolina, Jan. 12, 1997); net passing yards, 403 (327 vs. Dallas, Jan. 16, 1994); first downs, 32 (25 vs. Seattle, Jan. 12, 2008); scoring, 45 (42 vs. Seattle, 2008); yards allowed, 531 (453 vs. St. Louis Cardinals, Jan. 8, 1983); passing yards allowed, 375 (347 vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 1983); first downs allowed, 30 (28 vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 1983); points allowed, 51 (45 vs. St. Louis Rams, Jan. 20, 2002).
Individually, Rodgers went 28-of-42 for 422 yards and four touchdowns. The completions tied Brett Favre's record (vs. Jan. 16, 1994), yards obliterated Lynn Dickey's record of 332 (vs. Dallas, Jan. 16, 1983) and the touchdowns tied Bart Starr (vs. Dallas, Jan. 1, 1967) and Dickey (vs. St. Louis Cardinals, Jan. 8, 1983).
Finley's 159 receiving yards broke John Jefferson's record of 148 (vs. St. Louis Cardinals, Jan. 8, 1983).
The combined 96 points broke the old record of 95 set in Philadelphia's 58-37 victory over Detroit on Dec. 30, 1995.
— Atari Bigby exited in the third quarter with an injured hamstring and was replaced by Matt Giordano — who injured a knee earlier on Jordy Nelson's fumbled kickoff return late in the first half. Chad Clifton re-injured his ankle, was carted off the field and was replaced by T.J. Lang midway through the fourth quarter.
— Of Rodgers' 422 yards, 420 came in the final three quarters.
— The Packers boasted the NFL's top-ranked run defense but got thrashed for 156 yards and 6.8 yards per pop by the Cardinals. Beanie Wells led the way with 91 yards on 14 attempts.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.