GLENDALE -- Ken Whisenhunt thought the coin toss would be the biggest play of overtime.
Michael Adams, Karlos Dansby and the rest of Arizona's beleaguered defense thought otherwise.
After spending the better part of a half as extras in the Aaron Rodgers comeback special, the Cardinals altered the script and saved their season with an improbable defensive showstopper.
Adams forced a Rodgers fumble three plays into overtime and Dansby scooped the loose ball out of the air and rumbled 17 yards into the end zone to give the Cards a thrilling 51-45 win over the Green Bay Packers in the highest-scoring playoff game in NFL history Sunday afternoon at University of Phoenix Stadium.
"I'll tell you this, that has to be probably one of the best games ever played in the playoffs," a near-breathless Whisenhunt said afterward.
The victory propelled the fourth-seeded Cardinals (11-6) into the NFC divisional round for the second straight year. Arizona, the defending NFC champs, will visit the top-seeded New Orleans Saints (13-3) Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff.
It appeared as though the Cardinals were candidates for early booking specials at the beginning of Sunday's rematch against the Packers (11-6), but Green Bay's prolific quarterback nearly forced Arizona to cancel its travel plans.
Trailing 31-10 after the Cardinals scored on the first play of the third quarter, Rodgers orchestrated touchdown drives on all five Packers possessions in the second half to force overtime.
Kurt Warner (379 passing yards, five touchdowns) and the Arizona offense were just as prolific, producing points on seven of 10 drives in regulation. The Cardinals' final drive seemed destined to be the game-winner, but Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard field goal attempt with 9 seconds left.
Given how dominant the two offenses had been, Whisenhunt figured the overtime coin flip would determine his team's fate.
"You know, it was almost like, we'll just flip the coin and whoever wins the toss wins the game. It's kind of what you thought; you don't even have to go out and play it," the coach mused afterward. "I'm glad we did."
In a plot twist straight out of Hollywood, it was the defense that stole the show.
Arizona dodged a bullet when Rodgers overthrew a wide-open Greg Jennings on the first play of overtime. Two plays later the Cardinals utilized a secret weapon to poach the Packers.
Adams, a reserve cornerback mired in a two-game slump, raced in off the right corner and knocked the ball free from Rodgers' raised arm. The quarterback kicked the ball as he fell, knocking it right into Dansby's hands.
"It was a great blitz because we had it earlier in the game and we missed the sack," Dansby said. "We dialed it up in overtime. I told (Adams) on the first one that if he hit the body, the ball would come out. The second time he hit the body and the ball came out. I just made a play on it."
The sight of his teammate racing into the end zone with the winning points brought Adams to tears.
The 5-foot-7 third-year pro was flagged for several penalties in last week's 33-7 loss to Green Bay in the regular-season finale and didn't fare much better Sunday, committing a pass interference penalty in the end zone that set up the Packers' first touchdown.
"Even Ray Charles could see that it was a rough day for me," Adams said. "I was hurting out there. To be able to come back and make that kind of play, I just got to thank God and be proud.
"In the end zone, when I sank to my knees and cried, that's when it all sank in."
The Packers were on the verge of tears early in the game after committing two turnovers on their first three offensive plays, but they never cried uncle.
Dansby tipped Rodgers' first career playoff pass into the hands of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, whose third career playoff interception led to a 1-yard touchdown by Tim Hightower.
Two plays later Dansby stripped Packers receiver Donald Driver after a short gain and Alan Branch recovered the fumble at Green Bay's 22-yard line, setting up a 15-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Early Doucet.
Rackers booted a 23-yard field goal on the Cardinals' next series to put Arizona up 17-0 with 34 seconds left in the first quarter.
But Green Bay wasn't about to pack it in.
Rodgers led the Packers to seven straight scores, taking advantage of a recovered on-side kick and a Cardinals turnover along the way.
"We started very slowly, turned the ball over uncharacteristically, and then were able to come back and really get on a roll there in the second half," said Rodgers, who threw four touchdowns and a Packers playoff record 422 passing yards. "Unfortunately, we couldn't make enough plays to win."
The Packers tied the game at 38-all on fullback John Kuhn's 1-yard dive a minute into the fourth quarter. Arizona regained the lead on the next possession when Warner hit Steve Breaston (7 catches, 125 yards) on a 17-yard scoring strike with 4:55 left in regulation, but Green Bay knotted things back up on a Rodgers' 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Spencer Havner with 1:52 remaining.
Warner drove the Cardinals to the Green Bay 16, but Rackers hooked the potential game-winner right. The lost coin toss to start overtime appeared to be a double-whammy for the Cardinals. Fortunately, the defense saved the day - and season.
"I think there's no question a lot of people on our side were worried," said Warner, who completed 29 of 33 passes and didn't throw an interception. "We've had trouble stopping them all day, and now they win the toss. We wanted to have our hands on the ball again. Luckily, or unluckily, we didn't have to do that because of our defensive play."
Rory Faust can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2257.