AP Sports Writer
TEMPE, Ariz. — Seven years ago, Larry Fitzgerald was breaking NFL records in the Arizona Cardinals’ improbable run to the Super Bowl.
It was, he said, the highlight of his professional career. At least so far.
“Playing on the biggest stage in the Super Bowl, not winning it, but just the journey that I was able to take with the men I was able to do it with really made it special,” Fitzgerald said. “Hopefully, we can create some new memories this year.”
When the Cardinals play the Green Bay Packers in a divisional round game Saturday night, things will be quite different than they were back when he was the spectacular young player on the receiving end of Kurt Warner’s passes.
For one, his role has changed. For another, Arizona is expected to win.
In 2008, the Cardinals won the NFC West at 9-7, losing four of their last six games.
“We were considered the worst playoff team ever to get into the dance,” Fitzgerald recalled, “but it’s a lot different situation when you’re being hunted as opposed to hunting.
“We came in the surprise team. ‘They’ll probably get knocked out in the first round.’ Nobody expected anything and we kind of played to that. Now we’re the favorites. We’re expected to win.”
Arizona opened those playoffs with a 30-24 wild card win over Atlanta at home, then went to Carolina and beat the Panthers by a surprisingly one-sided 33-13 score.
Because Philadelphia, a wild card team, upset the New York Giants in the other divisional game, the Cardinals got to play the NFC championship game at home and beat the Eagles 32-25 to earn their first Super Bowl berth.
Heavy underdogs against Pittsburgh, the Cardinals took a 23-20 lead on Warner’s 64-yard pass to Fitzgerald with 2:37 to play. But with Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calling the plays, the Steelers moved quickly downfield to win it on Ben Roethlisberger’s six-yard TD pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds to play.
Through those four playoff games, Fitzgerald shattered single postseason records for yards (546), receptions (30) and touchdowns (seven).
Arizona won the NFC West again the following season, but Warner retired and the team’s fortunes spiraled downward with a succession of quarterbacks.
Then Arians was hired as head coach three years ago and jolted Fitzgerald’s world.
No longer would he simply line up at wide receiver, the only position he had ever played as a pro. He had to learn all of the receiver roles, and most often has played in the slot, where big plays downfield are rare and where blocking is a necessity.
Fitzgerald didn’t love the idea, but he did it.
“He’s embraced it,” offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin said. “He realizes how important the run game is and what it does for the passing game. So as a receiver, you buy in. I just kind of harp on him, about guys like Hines Ward and how they used to block back in Pittsburgh and that kind of thing. But, he’s bought in 100 percent.”
Along the way, Fitzgerald has become one of the best blocking receivers in the game.
“It’s just part of my job description,” he said. “I’m sure (right tackle) Bobby Massie, if you told him he could catch a touchdown, he’d probably be more excited than blocking one of the defensive ends. Catching balls is always great. Blocking is a little bit more dirty, but it’s part of the game and if you want to have success, you have to do things like that.”
And he’s still catching the ball, too, of course.
Fitzgerald signed a two-year contract last year and, at age 32, followed with one of his best seasons.
After his role as a receiver seemed to diminish in Arians’ first two years, it’s been crucial this season.
Fitzgerald’s 109 receptions broke the single-season franchise record he set a decade ago, in his second season in the NFL. He topped 1,000 yards receiving for the seventh time in his 12 NFL seasons, but first since 2011.
Fitzgerald is one of only three players remaining (Lyle Sendlein and Calais Campbell are the others) from Arizona’s 2009 Super Bowl squad.
Playing in the playoffs, Fitzgerald said, is “the most exciting thing you can do.”
“It’s a high that’s the highest you can have,” he said. “There’s nothing like coming out of that tunnel and seeing that crowd just going crazy, for you or against you. The hair standing up on your arms, it’s a great feeling, hoping that your number is going to get called so you can be the guy to make the first-down catch or catch the touchdown to put your team up on top.
“That’s what you dream about as a child.”