PHILADELPHIA -- The Packers-Eagles wild-card game was supposed to be a showcase of quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick. No one expected it to be running back James Starks' coming-out party. Not even Starks.
"I didn't expect that," said Starks, who ran for a Packers rookie-record 123 yards. "Each week I go in to practice not knowing what's going to happen. Whatever opportunity I'm given, I take it."
Of all the injuries the Packers suffered this season, none was more costly than Ryan Grant going down in Week 1 against the Eagles at the Linc. Grant is the perfect running back for Green Bay -- one who controls close games with consistent power. Packers fill-ins Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn could do certain things Grant could do, but neither was the whole package. Jackson lacks power and Kuhn is too slow. The closest thing to the 6-foot-1, 222-pound Grant is the 6-2, 218-pound Starks, a former University of Buffalo star who fell to the sixth round of the draft after missing his final season at Buffalo because of a shoulder injury.
Starks started the season on the PUP list, and after he was activated on Nov. 9, burst onto the scene for 73 yards against the Niners in Week 13. But Starks ran for just eight yards on six carries the following week and was inactive in Weeks 15 and 16.
When the Packers were trying to hold off a Vick-led rally, they saw their line had an advantage over the Eagles' small defensive front and kept going to Starks.
"[Starks] established a hot hand early, and I rode it," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. "We're very proud of him individually. It really speaks volumes about our offensive line. I thought we did a very good job playing on their side of the line of scrimmage and James did a good job of hitting the holes and running after the first hit."
Rodgers was able to answer critics by getting his first playoff win. Even though he didn't throw much in the second half and ended up with just 180 passing yards, he helped the Packers jump out to a 14-0 first-half lead by keeping drives alive with big third-down passes (Green Bay converted 8 of 13 third downs). But Rodgers' first playoff victory didn't exactly play out as expected.
"The way that James Starks was running the ball tonight was maybe one of the most important factors in the win," Rodgers said. "I thought that we were going to have a few more passing attempts, but the way that James was running, we just stuck with it."
Another reason the Packers stuck with the run was their inability to land any home runs in the passing game. Receiver Donald Driver left with a knee injury, and receiver James Jones dropped what would have been a 63-yard touchdown before halftime. The Eagles did a great job on No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings; Green Bay's longest pass play was just 20 yards. Credit the Packers for controlling the ball, but their lack of explosiveness let the Eagles hang around and Vick almost duplicated his comeback victory against the Giants from last month.
With less than five minutes left, Vick engineered a scoring drive that narrowed Green Bay's lead to 21-16. Vick got one more opportunity with 1:45 left in the game, and was driving down the field when he went for the kill shot to Riley Cooper in the end zone. Cooper never got a chance to make a play on the ball because the Packers' Tramon Williams caught it at full extension to seal the win.
"We kind of bumped into each other down there and I got my head around," Williams said. "And once I got my head around, I spotted the ball, and I knew I was going to get to it."
Williams was also matched up with DeSean Jackson for much of the game, holding the Philly star to just two catches for 47 yards. The Packers focused on keeping the Eagles' playmakers in front of them, and Williams is one of the few NFL cornerbacks who can at least stay close to Jackson when he's at a full sprint.
The Packers' other big challenge was limiting Vick's scrambling. The Eagles QB ran for 33 yards on eight carries and wasn't able to buy time with his feet to get the ball downfield.
"Throughout the game the D-line and everyone contained him for the most part," Williams said. "Once we saw we were containing him for the most part, there was nothing for us to worry about. Obviously, it's Mike and he's going to make plays here and there, but they did a good job throughout the game."
Now the questions begin about Vick's future in Philadelphia. He's a restricted free agent, and with the labor situation up in the air, the Eagles have been slow to re-sign him. When asked about his future in Philadelphia, Vick sounded hopeful, but far from sure.
"In this business, you never know," he said. "We'll see. I'm going to stay optimistic and keep believing. I still feel like I can play at a high level for the next couple of years."
Vick's backup, Kevin Kolb, is also rumored to be on the trade market. Kolb said he plans to meet with the team soon and doesn't know what's going to happen. "I'm ready to start," Kolb said. "I'm ready to take that next step in my career. But I do love this city. And obviously, I love this team."
It seems like a long time ago when Philadelphia traded Donovan McNabb and handed over the reigns to Kolb. Vick's emergence made everyone forget this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the young Eagles. Now they have a bitter feeling after losing a home playoff game, and more questions than answers heading into what could be an extra-long offseason.
The Packers advance to the divisional playoffs with a new weapon in their arsenal. If Starks can have the same kind of success against the Falcons, that will help slow down Atlanta's potentially fierce pass rush.
As for Starks, his wild ride form the PUP list, to the field, to the inactive list, to playoff stardom may have a few more twists ahead.
"This season was a process that I had to go through, and I am doing better with it," Starks said. "I've just been trying to keep ready so hopefully I can have a game like this. And hopefully, I can do it again if they call on me."
Considering Rodgers was the Packers' leading rusher when they last played the Falcons, Green Bay's coaching staff will be eager to call on Starks again. Only this time, the opponent is going to see him coming.