Monday, January 10, 2011

Packers vs. Eagles: James Starks Shines as Michael Vick's Rally Falls Short

PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Grant began the season as Green Bay's No. 1 back. Brandon Jackson took over when Grant suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Philadelphia.
Rookie James Starks, who had missed his senior year at Buffalo with a shoulder injury and the first nine weeks of this season, was beyond an afterthought. But Starks, who carried just 29 times for 101 yards in three games after being activated, was the unexpected hero on Sunday as the Packers beat the host Philadelphia Eagles 21-16 in a wild-card playoff game.
Starks gained 123 yards on 23 carries to help propel Green Bay to its first road playoff victory in 13 years, one that wasn't ensured until Michael Vick's pass intended for rookie receiver Riley Cooper was picked off by Tramon Williams in the end zone with 33 seconds to go. Philadelphia had trailed 21-10 late in the fourth quarter.
The Packers, the third wild card to win in the four games this weekend, never trailed again in advancing to a divisional round matchup with top seed Atlanta on Saturday night.
The NFC East champion Eagles, in losing their playoff opener for the second straight year, were hurt by a rare pair of missed field goal attempts by Pro Bowl kicker David Akers. The defeat means that Eagles Pro Bowl quarterback Vick's three playoff appearances have all ended in Philadelphia. The first two were with Atlanta in 2002 and 2004. The NFC East has now failed to put a team in the divisional round for the first time since 1997.
Some thoughts on the game:
• Starks was pivotal on the game's first scoring drive, breaking off a 27-yard run on the first play of Green Bay's second series en route to producing 45 yards on six touches on the possession which ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass from NFC passing champion Aaron Rodgers to backup tight end Tom Crabtree with eight seconds remaining in the first quarter.

• Philadelphia came in focused on protecting Vick against the blitz-happy Packers, but on the first play, outside linebacker Desmond Bishop blindsided him for a 9-yard loss. Vick passed 18 yards to receiver Jason Avant on the next play, but on third-and-1, Vick was stopped for no gain by Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins -- the Eagles had left tackle Jason Peters lined up in the backfield for some reason on that play. Philadelphia got a second chance at the game's outset when Sav Rocca's punt bounced off the leg of Green Bay's Brandon Underwood at his own 41. But the Packers held and the game remained scoreless when Akers kicked wide left from 41 yards.
• The Eagles' chances took a hit when Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson took an inadvertent one from teammate LeSean McCoy on their second series. McCoy was being tackled by Packers safety Charlie Peprah and rolled up the back of Jackson's left knee. Jackson, who had been battling an ankle injury for weeks, went down in agony and was soon helped to the locker room. By the time Jackson returned, his team trailed by two touchdowns.

• Green Bay got a break on its third series when running back John Kuhn fumbled on a jarring hit from rookie middle linebacker Jamar Chaney, only to wrest the ball away from Eagles safety Quintin Mikell for a first down at the Philadelphia 47. Six plays later, Rodgers recovered his own fumble at the 25. And three plays after that near-disaster, he rolled right and threw to receiver James Jones who made a diving catch in the end zone for a 14-0 lead with 5:21 left in the second quarter. The score came immediately after a Philadelphia timeout.

• Philadelphia finally got on the scoreboard with 1:11 left in the half as Akers kicked a 29-yarder to complete an 8-play, 63-yard drive.

• Green Bay didn't get lucky yet again on its third fumble when Rodgers was sacked by Darryl Tapp. Fellow defensive end Juqua Parker recovered at the Green Bay 24 and two plays later, Vick threaded the needle to Avant between four defenders to draw the hosts within 14-10 just 70 seconds into the second half.

• The Packers answered right back with an 11-play, 80-yard scoring march that ended with Jackson brilliantly waiting for blockers Daryn Colledge, Scott Wells and Josh Sitton to get in front of him before he danced into the end zone on a 16-yard screen pass with 7:33 remaining in the third quarter. Green Bay's three touchdown drives averaged 11 plays, 68 yards and 6:18.

• Eagles right tackle Winston Justice was called for three penalties in the span of two snaps in the third quarter: a false start, then an illegal formation and a vicious hold on Packers elite pass rusher Clay Matthews on one play. That series finished with Akers missing wide right again from 34, his first failure inside 37 yards all year. King Dunlap replaced Justice with 8:50 left in the game. Philadelphia marched 75 yards in 13 plays with Vick taking the ball over on 4th-and-goal from the 1, but tight end Brent Celek stepped out of the back of the end zone on the two-point conversion nullifying his catch. Vick threw the ball away under heavy pressure on the re-try.

• Veteran Packers receiver Donald Driver departed in the fourth quarter with a knee injury.

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