Calais Campbell was on the sideline – again -- as Larry Fitzgerald galloped after making an important late playoff catch -- again.
As the wide receiver finished off his 75-yard catch-and-run against the Packers, Campbell turned to someone nearby. "It looks like vintage 2008 Fitz," the defensive tackle said.
The current Cardinals look nothing like the Cardinals team that reached the Super Bowl after the 2008 season. But in the Cards' first postseason game last week, Fitzgerald certainly looked like the in-his-prime Fitz that put together arguably the finest postseason a receiver has ever had in leading his team to the brink of a title.
Fitzgerald's 176 yards receiving were a franchise postseason record as he carried the Cardinals' offense out of the first half mud. Perhaps it might have been unexpected at the season's outset, with Fitzgerald now 32 and coming off three straight sub-1,000 yard seasons.
But this was a player who insisted he was still working on his legacy when the Cardinals entered the season. Then Fitzgerald made a franchise-record 109 receptions this season. He had nine touchdowns and 1,215 yards.
Scoring the winning touchdown against the Packers after putting the Cardinals in position to score in the first place, and energizing his team and the fan base in the process, wasn't just a flashback. It was a statement.
"Really it's an even better Larry Fitzgerald this year," Campbell said. "He's hungry. He's a man on a mission. He's playing with a desire. That's the kind of stuff we need to get behind. He can lead us to a championship."
Fitzgerald, as usual, defers such individual talk. It's about the quarterbacks or the playcalling. A playoff game is no different in terms of his preparation or play.
It's hard to believe there isn't something else to it.
"He kind of took over," said center Lyle Sendlein, who is the other holdover from that 2008 team along with Fitzgerald and Campbell. "It was fun to watch then and it's fun to watch now."
It took Fitzgerald five NFL seasons to reach the playoffs for the first time. He was already a Pro Bowl receiver, regarded as one of the best in the game. It might have been hard to foretell the kind of postseason success Fitzgerald has shown, but maybe it shouldn't have been – his first playoff catch was a leaping, between-two-defenders-on-a-flea-flicker 42-yard touchdown from Kurt Warner against the Falcons during the 2008 Wild Card game.
Images from wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's nine postseason games
Fitzgerald had a good game that day – six catches, 101 yards – but nothing that predicted the rest of the postseason. The Cards went to Carolina the next week (Anquan Boldin didn't play because of injury) and he had eight receptions for 166 yards, a memorable stretch-for-the-pylon touchdown and another leaping grab between two defenders. In the NFC Championship, another nine catches for 152 yards and three first-half touchdowns, even after the Eagles insisted all week they wouldn't let Fitz beat them.
Then came the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh, where Fitzgerald was quiet until the Cardinals began going to him in the second half (a script that played out so similarly against the Packers last week.) By the time it was over, Fitzgerald had seven receptions for 127 yards and two touchdowns that night. If it weren't for Santonio Holmes, Fitzgerald's 64-yard catch-and-run score that gave the Cardinals the lead would be one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history.
"Some guys shrivel in the moment; other guys flourish in the moment," said Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, who was the Steelers' offensive coordinator in that Super Bowl. "He flourishes in the moment."
Fitzgerald had 12 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns when the Cardinals split their two 2009 playoff games, but he was muted in Carolina last year (three catches for 31 yards), in large part because of the team's issues at quarterback.
"I remember that Super Bowl game when they played Pittsburgh," said wide receiver John Brown, who had just started junior college that year. "I remember Larry catching the drag route and taking it 70 yards.
"Larry's doing the things the old Larry used to do. We got him a deep ball finally. Larry, he's been making plays ever since."
As of now, Fitzgerald is the only player in NFL postseason history that has averaged at least 100 yards receiving and a touchdown per game (and will remain there even if he doesn't have a catch Sunday). His three postseason games of at least 150 yards are the most by a player ever.
Postseason games are like any other game, Fitzgerald insisted. There is no point where he believes he has to take over.
"I don't feel any different," Fitzgerald said. "It doesn't matter if it's a Super Bowl or preseason game. I kind of feel the same way inside. There's no like heightened sense of emotion or I need to do a little bit more."
Fitzgerald's biggest play of the Packers' game wasn't necessarily supposed to come his way, and certainly not in the way it unfolded – with quarterback Carson Palmer nearly getting sacked and then spinning out of trouble before heaving the ball cross-field back to a wide-open Fitz.
Before that, though, and even after – the final two passes of overtime were also in Fitzgerald's direction – it looked like Palmer made a greater effort to find Fitz.
"I try not to look for any individual guy, because you can get yourself in tough situations like that," Palmer said. "You always want to get
Larry going. You always want to get Mike (Floyd) going, you want to get Smokey (Brown) going, but you've got to fight that urge. That's a dangerous recipe when you're really trying to force a ball to a guy."
"It's not something where I'm in my head thinking, 'I've got to get the ball to Larry,' " Palmer added. "But it's really nice to have him in there in those big moments when it's obvious you need to move the ball."
There is a different feel to Fitzgerald 2015 (or 2016) compared to Fitzgerald 2008. The younger Fitzgerald had his emotional moments after important plays, but as he has aged, Fitzgerald seems to have grasped even tighter his role as the team's emotional bellweather.
It only takes a key first down catch to bring out the primal Fitzgerald, the one featured on a Sports Illustrated cover this week. That's the Fitzgerald that draws out the loudest "Lar-ry! Lar-ry!" chants from the home crowd, and the one who seems to spur his own sideline.
"He's the key," offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. "He's a leader. When he gets motivated or excited, you can tell it kind of spreads out to everybody else on the team. Larry's a team guy. Anybody that scores, Larry's the first person to congratulate them. Emotionally, he's huge to us.
"All the years I've been in this league, I've never seen a guy actually take over a game like that, like he did. He basically took over the game and it was good to have him on our team."
He may deflect the praise to the quarterbacks that have thrown him the ball, but Fitzgerald is right that he alone can't dictate his impact Sunday against the Panthers. It's unlikely he'll repeat his playoff trip there from 2008, but then again, it was unlikely he'd explode against the Packers like he did.
Not an old Fitz, but the Fitz of old.
"In the second half and overtime, Fitz took over the game," Campbell said. "Everybody puts their hand in the pile, but there is no doubt in my mind Fitz put them on his back.
"With Fitz, you can tell he has that desire. Put the ball in his hands and good things are going to happen. He's gifted and works really hard and he wants it really bad. There's no reason not to give a guy with his talents the ball."