Fitzgerald's an 11 on a 10-point scale

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald had just finished a news conference when he pulled offensive coordinator Todd Haley aside following their team's 32-25 win over the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.

Fitzgerald didn't want to talk much about the specifics of that victory, though. Instead, he wanted to express his gratitude.

"Larry just said he wanted to thank me for keeping my foot on his throat over the last two years," Haley said.

What Fitzgerald knew is something that we're all realizing during this postseason: It's not an accident that he's taken his game to a frightening level. It took plenty of pushing and prodding from coaches like Haley. It took Fitzgerald's acceptance that his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame and explosive leaping ability weren't going to be enough to make him the receiver he wanted to become. And it also required the considerable opportunities he's been given during the Cardinals' improbable Super Bowl run.

Just look at how Fitzgerald torched the Eagles on Sunday in University of Phoenix Stadium. He caught nine passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns, with all three scores coming as Arizona built a 24-6 halftime lead. What made those numbers all the more impressive was the fact that the Eagles had to know what was coming. After all, Fitzgerald already had torched both the Carolina Panthers (eight receptions, 166 yards and a touchdown) and Atlanta Falcons (six receptions, 101 yards and another score) in earlier playoff wins.

But that's the level Fitzgerald's game has reached these days. Even when he should be the first concern for any opposing defense, he still manages to be a deadly target for quarterback Kurt Warner. Fitzgerald actually was so good that it was hard to believe he didn't have more to say about his effort.

"It's my job," Fitzgerald said. "I just try to make sure I'm accountable when I'm out there. If I don't, then I get the death stare from Kurt."

Fitzgerald might have been joking, but he knows there's something special happening with his play. He's gone from being a gifted receiver to a player who can take over games whenever it's necessary. That's not to knock the production he's given Arizona over his five seasons, when he's earned three Pro Bowl nominations and caught 426 career passes. It's just that most of those inflated statistics never really made Fitzgerald seem as dangerous as he is now.

It's also apparent the Cardinals' coaches had a similar view of Fitzgerald when Ken Whisenhunt's staff took over the team two years ago. They knew all about Fitzgerald's tremendous skills but they wanted more from him.

"When we first got here, I used to joke that Larry was a one-trick pony," Haley said. "If you threw him the football outside the numbers, that's when he would make plays for you. But I give him credit for accepting the challenge of becoming a complete receiver. He's responded well to the coaching and that's one reason why he's a great player."

Fitzgerald clearly changed his game in noteworthy ways. The Cardinals' coaches say he improved his release off the line of scrimmage, which allowed him to get into his routes faster. He also became a more aggressive runner after the catch, which enabled him to create even more problems for defenders in the open field. The Cardinals' coaches also did a good job of pressing Warner to look for Fitzgerald in traffic. Even if Fitzgerald was covered, the coaches believed the odds favored his chances of making a great catch.

It's that kind of confidence in Fitzgerald's ability that was on display Sunday. Fitzgerald's first touchdown came on a 9-yard reception that ended with him barreling through two defenders on the way to the end zone. His second score was a 62-yard reception on a gadget play -- Warner threw the pass after handing off to running back J.J. Arrington and Arrington tossed a lateral back to Warner. The final touchdown was much simpler. Fitzgerald ran a fade pattern from the 1-yard line and outjumped 5-10 cornerback
Sheldon Brown for Warner's pass.

The Eagles eventually adjusted to deal with Fitzgerald -- they played more two-deep coverage in the second half -- but he still delivered when it mattered most. He eventually caught three passes from Warner on the fourth-quarter drive that ended with an 8-yard, game-winning touchdown reception by running back Tim Hightower.

Whisenhunt later said that possession proved how much his team had learned to overcome the ups and downs that had marked its play earlier this season. It also proved something else: how much it needs to rely on Fitzgerald when times get tough.

In fact, it seems as if Fitzgerald has separated himself from his own teammate, fellow Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin. It used to be impossible to talk about one without the other, but Fitzgerald's play -- especially when a hamstring injury sidelined Boldin in that Carolina win -- has put him into a different category.

As Haley said, "We know great players make great plays in big games, and Larry really has defined himself with how he's performed in these playoff games."

The next question is whether Fitzgerald can come up big one more time for the Cardinals. There's no secret as to how Arizona will use him and he'll certainly be facing another tough defense against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

But it's also hard to count Fitzgerald out these days. He's too big, too polished and most importantly, too confident in his ability to dominate whomever he's facing.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.