Playoffs #1: Philly’s Cheesesteak Finale

January 9, 2011 – Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia Pennsylvania

It was a mixture of relief, satisfaction and joy that accompanied the Green Bay Packers as they prepared for their NFC wild card playoff game against the Eagles. In truth, these Packers had been in playoff mode for the better part of a month anyway. After back-to-back losses to the Detroit Lions & New England Patriots in mid-December, the Packers knew what they had to do–win or go home, which sounds an awful lot like a playoff game scenario.

So it was into that pressure-packed cauldron the Packers entered the final 2 weeks of the regular season. They responded with a blowout win over the NY Giants & a tough, grind it out, win over the Bears. The Bears played their starters the entire game when they didn’t have to. If any team was playoff tested, it was the Packers & no team wanted to face them, especially in the playoffs.

Their first-round foe would be a familiar one. The Packers and Eagles had faced off in the season’s opening week, but a lot had changed for both teams since that early September afternoon.

Green Bay had, of course, absorbed a ton of key injuries, ultimately putting 16 players on injured reserve. The offense had found its stride and the defense, which had seemed so confounded by the entrance of Michael Vick in that first game, was playing with confidence and speed.

Jenkins & Bishop sack Mike Vick

The Eagles had committed to Vick & he had responded with an MVP-type season.

While Vick had ran through, over & past the Packers the first time they met, Packers’ defensive coordinator Dom Capers this time had a week to prepare & a season’s worth of tape to watch in anticipation. It would make a huge difference.

Offensively, head coach Mike McCarthy came out with a new look against the blitzing, aggressive Eagles defense. He used personnel groupings he hadn’t used before. He ran motions he hadn’t unveiled before. He used a variation of the wishbone backfield, which utilized John Kuhn at fullback & Brandon Jackson & James Starks as the halfbacks.

McCarthy brilliantly countered Philly’s aggressiveness on defense with aggressiveness of his own on offense. It was a master stroke.

Perhaps most important, when he saw Starks break off a 27-yard run on his first carry of the game midway through the 1st quarter, McCarthy decided that was a horse he had to ride.

Starks, who had run well earlier in the season against the 49’ers, had found his place in McCarthy’s doghouse with poor practice habits after that. Now he was getting another chance in a playoff game & Starks wasn’t about to blow it.

Keeping the Eagles off balance, the Packers built a 14-0 lead in the 2nd quarter on touchdown passes from Aaron Rodgers to backup tight end Tom Crabtree & James Jones. Still leading 14-3 in the waning seconds of the first half, the Packers could have put a dagger in the Eagles as Rodgers hit Jones in stride with a perfect strike for what should have been a 63-yard touchdown. Instead, Jones dropped the ball.

On the heels of this reprieve, the Eagles rallied in the 3rd quarter. Rodgers fumbled away the ball after being sacked and Vick connected with Jason Avant for a 14-yard touchdown.

Perhaps in previous seasons, that turn of fortune might have crippled the Packers. Not this year. Rodgers came right back with a 10-play 80-yard drive capped by a perfect screen pass to Brandon Jackson for the touchdown.

Then it was survival time & time for the defense to strut their stuff. Vick’s 4th quarter, 4th down touchdown sneak cut the Packers lead to 21-16 and it stayed that way after a failed 2-point conversion.

Game clinching Interception by Tramon Williams

Philly had one final drive & moved from its own 34 to the packers’ 27 in 5 plays before Vick’s pass to the end zone was intercepted by Tramon Williams to end the game.

“I felt I got greedy and I took a shot at the end zone,” Vick said later. “You learn from that.”

For Rodgers, it was another solid effort as he completed 18 of 27 passes for 180 yards and 3 scores. It was also Rodgers’ 1st playoff win as Green Bay’s quarterback, a fact brought up by many in the media.

“I never felt I had a monkey on my back,” Rodgers retorted. “It was just good to win.”

Starks was the real surprise as he steamrolled the Eagle defense for 123 yards rushing on 23 carries & offered the Packers some badly needed balance.

It was a good start, but now the Packers had a bigger task–traveling back to the Georgia Dome for a rematch with the top-seeded Falcons…and what a rematch it would be.

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