That the Cardinals reached the NFC Championship game wasn't unexpected.
The way they got there Saturday night, with pinball touchdown passes and allowing a Hail Mary score and watching their legendary receiver likely cement his Hall of Fame case, well, maybe that wasn't quite as predictable.
There were smiles and a little bit of disbelief in the Cardinals' locker room after beating the Packers, 26-20, which ended in overtime during the Larry Fitzgerald show. Regardless of what happens in next week's NFC title game, the Cardinals added a memorable postseason win to their already memorable season.
"That was a hell of a game," linebacker Kevin Minter said, shaking his head.
"A game like that, you gotta get in that ice (after). And take some blood pressure medicine too."
The Cardinals could still host the NFC Championship, if the Seahawks beat the Panthers in Carolina Sunday. If the Panthers win, the Cards will travel to Carolina.
No one was talking about that, though. Not yet. They were talking about Fitzgerald, mostly, the face of the franchise who showed he could still lift it on his back as well. Fitzgerald had eight catches for 176 yards, winning the game with a five-yard score on a shovel pass set up by a "spectacular" – the words of quarterback Carson Palmer – 75-yard catch-and-run two plays before by Fitzgerald.
It never should have come to that.
The Cardinals had a seven-point lead after Chandler Catanzaro's field goal with 1:55 left. The screaming crowd thought the game was over three plays later, with the Packers facing a fourth-and-20 at their own 4-yard line with 1:05 left.
Instead, Green Bay wide receiver Jeff Janis got behind the defense for an improbable 60-yard catch. The Cards were stunned, and it wasn't even the most mind-blowing play of the drive. That came three snaps later, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers slid away from the blitz pressure and hurled a 41-yard bomb to Janis. Cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Rashad Johnson were back – yet Janis made the catch with no time left on the clock.
The extra point tied the game.
"Our game plan was to blitz him from the left, pressure off the edge because we know he likes to roll to his right," Johnson said. "Being the special guy that he is, he saw it, and came back, bought some time. … At the end of the day, it was a special play. But we got the win."
It was a crushing moment for a team that thought it was about to win.
"You don't like to see that happen," Palmer said. "But you move on."
That meant overtime. The Cardinals won the toss – twice, because the coin didn't flip the first time – and asked for the ball. A touchdown would end it. On the first play, Palmer looked for sure he would be sacked. Instead, he slipped through the pressure, scrambled right and threw the ball back across the field.
There, Fitzgerald was waiting, wide open.
"I was expecting someone to be around," Fitzgerald said. "I saw a lot of grass there."
Fitzgerald sprinted up the sideline and then through traffic. He picked up blocks from wide receivers Michael Floyd and John Brown and tight end Darren Fells, and suddenly the pass became reminiscent of Fitzgerald's split-the-safeties score in the Super Bowl. It was a 75-yard gain that put the Cards on the brink of victory.
Fitzgerald was tackled at the Green Bay 5. A pass to Fitzgerald in the end zone fell incomplete. On second down, a new wrinkle -- Palmer shoveled a pass to Fitzgerald, who ran right up the middle for the winning points.
"We've been saving that little shovel pass for about 18 weeks and finally it was the right time to use it," coach Bruce Arians said.
The Cardinals gained as many yards on Fitzgerald's first overtime catch as they did in the entire first half. The touchdown that gave the Cards the lead was even heart-stopping, a slant to Fitzgerald that was deflected by cornerback Damarious Randall high into the air – and into the arms of Floyd in the back of the end zone.
As troubled as the Cardinals' offense looked for a chunk of the night, Palmer still finished with 349 yards passing and three touchdowns – making his two interceptions, including one in the end zone, moot – and won his first career playoff game at age 36.
And now he was headed to the NFC Championship.
"It feels better than I thought," Palmer said.
Rodgers threw for just 261 yards, without receiver Davante Adams coming in and then losing receiving Randall Cobb early in the game with a chest injury. The Packers ran for 135 yards, but 75 came on their one non-Hail Mary touchdown drive.
The Hail Mary "put us into overtime and you feel like you are going to win the game," Rodgers said. "It is pretty disappointing."
For the Cardinals, there was no disappointment. Both sides of the ball believe they will have to play better to win another and reach a Super Bowl, but the point is they will get that chance.
"You'd like everything to go as planned, but that doesn't happen," Palmer said. "Players have to make plays. We definitely did that."
Images of the Cardinals facing off with the Packers on Saturday night