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Finishing With Fitz, Flourish

Posted Jan 1, 2012

Cards need overtime one more time, but beat Seattle, 23-20, to go 8-8

Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald lets out a scream of emotion after his 26-yard reception in overtime, a catch that sparked the game-winning drive in a 23-20 win.

One last time in the 2011 season – or, from a different perspective, for the first time in 2012 – Larry Fitzgerald reached out and stabbed the pass one-handed, somehow coming down with a reception he shouldn’t have.

It was like the Cardinals and their Pro Bowl wide receiver wanted to force all they had been through this year into one tidy package. They were in overtime, of course, their defense had stood up when necessary and their offense did enough attached to Fitzgerald’s back.

When Jay Feely’s anti-climactic 28-yard field goal gave the Cardinals a 23-20 win over the Seattle Seahawks Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Cardinals had finished the season 8-8. They had set an NFL record for overtime wins in a season with four. The long, odd, unpredictable journey this team had taken ended predictably.

“If we play 16 overtime games next year,” Fitzgerald said, “we might go 16-0.”

The Cardinals played an NFL-high 13 games decided by seven points or less, going 8-5 in those games. It seemed like it was going to be a little easier, after the Cards pulled ahead, 20-10, in the fourth quarter. But quarterback John Skelton – who had a minor fainting spell in the locker room before warmups after having his knee drained – threw an interception nearly returned for a touchdown and the Seahawks (7-9) struck for a 61-yard touchdown bomb.

The Cardinals didn’t have running back Beanie Wells, sitting because of his sore knee, and for the first half, they might has well not have had Fitzgerald, who had one catch for two yards. They lost defensive end Calais Campbell to an ankle injury in the second half. They lost what looked like Patrick Peterson’s fifth punt return for a touchdown when Peterson allowed punter Jon Ryan to trip him up.

In the end, it didn’t matter. “Typical Cardinals fashion,” is how Skelton put it, and the Cards closed the season with seven wins in their last nine games. The Cards even lost the coin flip in overtime for the third time in four tries and then Seahawks’ return man Leon Washington got the ball out to the Seattle 40-yard line.

Those were just minor details.

“When we kneeled on the ball (to end regulation), I said the odds are with us if we go to overtime,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

“Why we can’t do that to not go into these overtimes, this is what we have to work on.”

Skelton, starting for a seventh time, was Skelton. He completed 22-of-40 passes for 271 yards with a touchdown (to tight end Todd Heap) and the crucial interception. He threw it to Fitzgerald 18 times total, and he and Whisenhunt both noted that Fitzgerald should have had more catches had Skelton been able to accurately deliver the ball.

Defensively, though, the Cardinals stood up again and again. Seattle couldn’t get past the Arizona 49-yard line after tying the game.

Then it became the Fitzgerald show.

In the second half and overtime, Fitzgerald had eight receptions for 147 yards. His first in overtime was stunning, a 26-yard catch-and-run on third-and-3 in between two defenders that didn’t like it was possible. His last was incredible in a different way, a diving grab with just his right hand for 12 yards that all but guaranteed the victory.

“At that junction of the game,” Fitzgerald said, “it’s put-up-or-shut-up time.”

Said Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, “He made some unbelievable catches that only a couple of guys on this Earth can make.”

It wasn’t the easiest of seasons for Fitzgerald, who finished with 80 catches for 1,411 yards and eight touchdowns. His 17.6 yards-per-catch average was the best of his career, and he maintained patience during so many weeks when whomever was playing quarterback couldn’t seem to get him the ball.

That included Sunday’s first half.

“Early on in my career, I would have been sulking,” Fitzgerald admitted. “As I’ve matured a little bit, I realize it’s about the team and having positive body language. I was named a captain … (and when) things are going to go well, I have to carry the flag and when they don’t go well, I have to carry the flag.”

LaRod Stephens-Howling, filling in as starter Wells, gained another 14 rushing yards (of his 93 for the game) on three carries following Fitzgerald’s last grab. Feely then delivered his second overtime winner of the season.

The last time the Cardinals finished 8-8, they won the division the next season. Whether this .500 record can create the same kind of momentum is to be determined, but the feeling in the locker room was that it will mean something important.

“This was what we wanted to do after so many things going bad early on,” veteran safety Adrian Wilson said. “We’re going into the offseason, the young guys who played understand what it takes to win. To do it for 17 weeks, mentally you have to be in it. That’s where you separate yourself.”

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