GLENDALE, Ariz. — Three plays into the Cardinals’ third drive of the fourth quarter, quarterback Carson Palmer completed a short pass to Larry Fitzgerald for 8 yards with Arizona leading 23-10. It was Fitzgerald’s 12th catch of the game on 12 targets, moving him within one catch of tying his career high for a single game.
The Cardinals didn’t target Fitzgerald again in the game, prompting a reporter to ask Fitzgerald if he knew how close he was to the record.
“I’m very aware all the time of where I’m at,” Fitzgerald said, laughing. “But no, the game was out of reach at that point. I never put myself in front of my team. We did what we needed to do. Hopefully I can get 13 or 14 next week.”
Fitzgerald hadn’t recorded double-digit catches since the final game of the 2010 season, a stretch of 45 games. Some of that was due to the quarterbacks the Cardinals trotted on the field in the post-Kurt Warner era; some of it, by his own admission, was Fitzgerald’s fault for not playing up to his lofty standards.
But if there were ever a time for Fitzgerald to break out, it made sense that it was Sunday. Coach Bruce Arians had stressed the importance of winning division games with the Cardinals in the midst of an eight-game NFC West losing streak while facing division opponents in three of their final four games as they chase the playoffs.
Fitzgerald has had a lot of monster games against NFC West foes. Prior to Sunday’s 96-yard, one-touchdown game, his best two games of the season came in Week 1 at St. Louis (eight catches, 80 yards, two TDs) and in Week 6 at San Francisco (six catches, 117 yards, TD).
In 2012, he had eight catches for 92 yards at St. Louis. In 2011, his top two yardage games were at San Francisco (seven catches, 149 yards, TD) and against Seattle (nine catches, 149 yards). In that 2010 season finale at San Francisco, he had 11 catches for 125 yards and a TD. In 2009, he tied a career high with 13 catches for 100 yards and a TD at Seattle. And in the Super Bowl season, he had 10 catches for 151 yards at Seattle.
“You know them, they know you,” Fitzgerald said of his success against the NFC West. “We play against Tennessee next week. I haven’t played against Tennessee for a couple years, so their personnel is a little sketchy; I don’t know who’s who.
“But when I’m playing against the Rams or playing against Seattle or playing against San Francisco, you know exactly what you’re going to get. You know their signals. It’s about executing at that point, so it is much more exciting when you play against a division team.”
On Sunday, it didn’t matter what defense the Rams threw at Fitzgerald. He caught balls in glove-tight coverage, he caught balls that were contested, he caught balls in double coverage. He looked like the vintage Fitzgerald of a couple seasons ago.
“We just had a good connection,” he said of he and Palmer. “Everything worked pretty good.”
Fitzgerald’s 7-yard TD catch in the second quarter gave him 10 touchdowns this season, making him only the ninth player in NFL history to score double-digit touchdowns in five seasons or more. But he shrugged off that milestone as he often does.
“I’m not the kind of person that sits back and reflects at the time,” he said. “It’s just another footnote hopefully in a career that’s continuing to ascend. That’s my goal. Hopefully, we’ll be sitting here in a couple of years and I’ll be able to have done it seven or eight times. That’s my focus.”
The first half of the year was frustrating for Fitzgerald, who wasn’t a big part of the offense. But he kept a stiff upper lip and never complained about his reduced role, even if it was eating him up inside.
“He loves playing the game, whether he’s the guy that’s the focal point or we’re running the ball or the defense is playing great,” Palmer said.
Fitzgerald said a couple of weeks ago that he was in a happy place because the Cardinals were winning again. But it’s helped the past four weeks that he’s been a bigger part of the offense.
In the past four games, he has 28 catches for 281 yards and five TDs.
“I think it’s a combination … of just fully grasping the offenses and nuances,” he said. “Having the running game hitting like it’s been hitting — I don’t know what we ran for today, but we had nice gashes all day. Whenever you’re going to get that, a lot of teams are going to have to bring that strong safety in the box and you’re going to get some single-high-safety looks.
“There were a couple times we got fooled and Carson just found me. It seemed to be working, seemed to be going smooth.”