The first catch came early, in the first game, Larry Fitzgerald hauled in a crucial 34-yard bomb that drew the Cards away from their own goal line and helped them hold off the Carolina Panthers.
The most memorable might have been Fitzgerald’s 37-yard-directly-over-his-head reception in Philadelphia that set up the game-winning touchdown.
There have been others – the 53-yard catch-and-run against San Francisco to set up what proved to be the game-winning touchdown, the 32-yard overtime reception against the Browns to set up a game-winning field goal, or even the 30-yard catch-and-run touchdown last weekend in Cincinnati that awoke a dormant offense and nearly sparked an unthinkable victory.
Fitzgerald is a Pro Bowler once again, and while his receptions are down – 71 heading into the season finale – the veteran has provided so many big plays in the final quarter when the outcome remains in doubt.
“My situational awareness, not to sound braggadocios, but I feel like it’s pretty high,” Fitzgerald said. “I know when it’s time to go.”
In the fourth quarter this season overall, Fitzgerald has 27 catches for 578 yards – the latter total second in the NFL to the 628 of the Giants’ Victor Cruz – and no one has more receptions of more than 20 yards in the final quarter than Fitzgerald’s 12.
Many of those catches have meant something. It helps that the Cardinals have played in an NFL-most 12 games this season decided by seven points or less, because fourth quarters have mostly been about more than just running out the clock.
In fact, there have only been three games that haven’t been close late – the Cards losses in Minnesota and San Francisco, and home against the Steelers – and one other close game in which Fitzgerald was shut out in the fourth quarter – in Seattle.
“We try and get him involved the entire game,” offensive coordinator Mike Miller said. “But when the game is on the line, we’re going to always go to our best players. So we will go to things and dial up plays that, especially the quarterback knows, all things being equal, there’s a good chance (of him being open) so to give ‘11’ an extra look.”
Of Fitzgerald’s 27 receptions in fourth quarter and overtime, 20 have come when the score was within seven either way, for 410 yards and three touchdowns. Four more (for 90 yards and a touchdown) came last week in Cincinnati when the Bengals still had a big lead but were obviously a huge part of the Cards’ rally and near-comeback.
Fitzgerald tries not to lament a lack of receptions, but there is a part of him that believes less production earlier in games has helped him in the final 15 minutes.
“What happens a lot of times when teams have success, when they have a plan for you and they take that guy out of his comfort zone for three quarters, sometimes it’s human nature to kind of feel, ‘Hey, we’ve got him neutralized,’ ” Fitzgerald said. “Then I’ll get a favorable matchup and make a play, and it sparks the offense.”
Those plays down the stretch might have helped Fitzgerald get back to the Pro Bowl – “He’s had some games where he has been double covered the whole game and he’s had a tough time, but he’s worked hard and made his plays,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said – and some believe he’s playing at a higher level than he ever before.
He certainly looks that way late in games.
“The fourth quarter is when your best players are supposed to step up and make important plays in important situations,” Fitzgerald said. “Anyone who feels they are an elite player looks forward to those opportunities. It’s a privilege to have your number called in those situations. There are those who might not want it or shy away from it, but I look forward to it.”