If Larry Fitzgerald looked like he was trying to end the game as quickly as possible Saturday night in overtime, racing through the Packers' secondary for a 75-yard gain that was followed two plays later by his decisive 5-yard score, it's because he was.
"If that game would've gone any longer, I would've struggled physically," he said by phone the morning after the Cardinals' 26-20 victory. "I was dehydrated and cramping."
The Cardinals are in the NFC Championship Game for the first time in seven years not only because of the MVP-level play of quarterback Carson Palmer, the persistent pressure of the defense, the aggressive play calling of coach Bruce Arians, and the deft personnel moves of general manager Steve Keim. It's also because of the resurgence of Fitzgerald.
After several subpar seasons due primarily to injuries to himself and to Arizona's quarterbacks, he had a terrific 2015 campaign (109 catches, 1,215 yards, 9 TDs), again producing at a rate associated with future Hall of Famers. Not that many expected it from him coming into the season.
"'He's over the hill. He can't play anymore.' That's the thing people were thinking," Fitzgerald said. "But I knew what I can do."
His long gainer on the first play of overtime can be viewed as a metaphor for his season. Packer after Packer tried to bring him down, but he outran, stiff-armed and stepped over them in the same manner he has done with doubters all season. He insists that what he did was no different from what he has done all year -- all of his career, really. He said it's just that more people are watching in the playoffs.
While that may be true, it's also a fact that the postseason brings out the best in him. During the 2008 season, which ended with the Cardinals' only Super Bowl appearance, he set league postseason records for receptions (30), yards receiving (546) and touchdown catches (seven). He surpassed 100 yards receiving in each of the four games to establish another record.
On Saturday, he finished with eight receptions for 176 yards and a score. His 170 yards after halftime were the most ever in the second half/overtime of a playoff game, and it moved him into first place in league history with three playoff games of at least 150 yards receiving.
"It's not like my approach changes or anything," he said. "I'm just able to be calm in the biggest moments, and I'm able to focus and just rely on my technique that I've worked on for countless hours over my career. When you've done it for so long, you're confident, you know what you're doing, and you have an idea because you're prepared for it. So you just go out and execute."
Fitzgerald was far from calm near the end of regulation Saturday night. Only seconds earlier, the game appeared to be over. The Cardinals led by a touchdown with five seconds to play and the Packers 41 yards from the end zone. Then Aaron Rodgers launched a pass toward the heavens. Jeff Janis went high to grab it for the touchdown, and the game would be tied with the extra point. Fitzgerald then waited anxiously to see if he would get a chance to turn the outcome in the Cardinals' favor.
That opportunity did not present itself in Super Bowl XLIII, when the Steelers marched down the field in the final two and a half minutes for the decisive touchdown. For Fitzgerald, it was the most helpless he had ever felt on a football field because the outcome was out of his hands. So when the Cardinals won the coin toss to start overtime, he gave a figurative fist pump. We get the ball, and now I get an opportunity to do something special myself.
"That's the thing that hurt the most in the Super Bowl, that I wasn't on the field for the decisive portion of the game," he said of the 27-23 defeat. "It always goes through your mind. It's something you never forget. That heartbreak walking off that field -- that's one of the roughest things you can experience. To be that close and not get it done, it hurts."
There would be no denying him Saturday, starting with the 75-yard catch-and-run on the first play of overtime.
"I was thinking about running out of bounds, then I said, 'Forget that. I'm going for it,'" he said. "I put my foot in the ground and changed gears. I was trying to get there. I wanted to do the walk-off. A walk-off, 80-yarder is legendary."
He settled for a 5-yard walk-off. It may not have been legendary, but it was fulfilling. He celebrated in much the same manner he celebrates most home victories, with a trip to the ice tub to get his legs back, then a 25-minute ride home, where he had a massage to help release some of the inflammation. He never would have done either of these things early in his career, but he's 32 now, not 22. The recovery process starts much earlier.
"People want to know if this is my best season, but it's not over yet. I've still got work to do," Fitzgerald said. "I look at this year as, I made the best of the opportunities that I was given. I still wish I could do some of the things that I did in the past, like go down the field more; I can make plays down the field still. But my role is what it is, and I accepted it to do what I could to help my team."
That means more work from the slot and routes on the interior of the defense. The role change takes more of a toll on his body, but winning has a way of making the hurt feel good. That's why the morning after penning another remarkable chapter in his postseason book, he rose from eight hours of sleep and headed to the training facility for an IV and a weight-training session. He also addressed the 500 or so congratulatory texts he received from peers such as Steve Smith Sr., Joe Haden and Charles Tillman, to Hall of Famers like Cris Carter, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk and Marcus Allen. Basketball greats past (Charles Barkley) and present (LeBron James) also reached out to him.
"I'll respond to each of them as the day goes on," he said. "They're people who are sincerely happy for me. It makes you really appreciate the relationships and friendships that you've built across the league, and lets you know that you're respected."