GLENDALE, Ariz. - Old master Kurt Warner and playoff newcomer Aaron Rodgers staged a passing duel to rival any the NFL has seen.
And when the highest-scoring postseason game in league history ended abruptly in overtime, Rodgers flung his helmet to the sideline in disgust.
He can blame the Arizona defense for his misery.
Karlos Dansby returned Rodgers’ fumble 17 yards for a touchdown to give the Cardinals a 51-45 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
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Rodgers, intercepted on the game’s first play but marvelous after that, was stripped by Michael Adams. The ball bounced off Rodgers’ foot and into the hands of Dansby, who ran untouched for the score.
“He made a sack, the ball went in the air, I just made a play on the ball,” Dansby said.
The reigning NFC champion Cardinals (11-6) rushed the field to celebrate.
“That’s probably one of the best games ever played in the playoffs,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
Incredibly, Warner had more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four).
“We knew how tough it was going to be on our defense with all the weapons they have offensively and how they’ve been playing,” Warner said. “It was just one of those games where I felt great. I loved our playing. I felt like I was seeing everything well and it accumulates to 51 points.”
Warner, who improved his playoff record to 9-3, finished 29-of-33 for 379 yards with no interceptions. The five TDs matched the 38-year-old’s career best.
Rodgers, in his first playoff start, was 28-of-42 for a Packers postseason-record 422 yards and four TDs. All but two of Rodgers’ yards came after the first quarter.
“It’s clearly one of the toughest losses I’ve been a part of,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. “I’m very proud of our football team and fight. This is a hard game to swallow.”
The previous high for combined points in a postseason game was 95 in Philadelphia’s 58-37 win over Detroit on Dec. 30, 1995.
“Whew,” Warner said at his postgame news conference, “anybody else tired?”
The NFC West champion Cardinals play at New Orleans on Saturday.
It was the most points scored and allowed by the Packers (11-6) in their storied 41-game playoff history.
Dansby started and ended the game with big plays. He broke up Rodgers’ opening pass and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie intercepted. The next time the Packers got the ball, Dansby stripped Donald Driver and Arizona’s Alan Branch recovered.
With Anquan Boldin sidelined with injuries, Warner threw two TD passes to Larry Fitzgerald, two to Early Doucet and one to Steve Breaston, who caught seven passes for 125 yards.
It was the first playoff game to end on a defensive touchdown since Jan. 4, 2004, when Al Harris returned an interception 52 yards to give Green Bay a 33-27 win over Seattle.
Arizona’s Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard field goal at the end of regulation, failing to break a tie.
The teams combined for 1,024 yards. Arizona had 531, including 156 rushing, against a Packers defense ranked No. 2 overall and No. 1 against the run. The 13 TDs set an NFL playoff record.
Green Bay entered as winner of seven of its prior eight, including a 33-7 win against the Cardinals on the same field a week ago.
But the team with the fewest turnovers in the NFL (16) started the game with two of them and ended it with another.
In between, Green Bay rallied from a 21-point second-half deficit to twice tie the game.
“The game was so back and forth, it was unbelievable,” Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said.
After Rackers missed the field goal, the Packers won the toss. Since Arizona hadn’t stopped them since the first half, it didn’t look good for the home team.
But on third-and-6 at the Green Bay 24, the 5-foot-8 cornerback Adams came through on a blitz and stripped Rodgers. On a bad bounce the Packers will long rue, the ball caromed off Rodgers’ foot and right to Dansby.
“We had the play called earlier, but we missed the sack,” Dansby said. “With the game on the line, we called it again. … See you in New Orleans, baby.”
Rodgers said he should have just taken the sack.
“I was trying to unload it,” he said. “I should have held on to the ball.”
The Cardinals took the second-half kickoff and drove 80 yards for a touchdown to go up 31-10, Warner throwing 33 yards to Fitzgerald, who has nine TD catches in five playoffs.