Playoff breakdown: Packers-Eagles
A healthy Michael Vick will be key to the Eagles' playoff run
The playoffs began early for Packers; will it take its toll?
Vick's known for his scrambling ability, but don't overlook Aaron Rodgers
Breaking down the NFC wild-card battle, Packers at Eagles, Sunday, 4:30 ET, Fox
1. Michael Vick will be the dominant story of the NFL playoffs for as long as the Eagles are alive. For the first time since the 2004 season -- and the first time since he spent 19 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring -- Vick will start in a postseason game. It's a story that transcends football. With a public that includes supporters, detractors and those in between, Vick has ignited the Eagles offense, playing quarterback at an absurdly high level this season. When healthy and right, he's unlike any other player on the planet.
In recent weeks, though, the dynamic quarterback who carried the Eagles on his shoulders has been slowed by both an injury to his quadriceps and the accumulation of hits to his body. Against Minnesota in Week 16, when he injured his quad on the game's first play, Vick was clearly uncomfortable standing tall in the pocket. Instead of gliding to the left and right and keeping his eyes downfield, Vick seemed to lose the pocket presence that had been a hallmark for most of the season. The quarterback who destroyed defensive game plans was gone.
Part of the credit should go to a smart defensive scheme by the Vikings, but part of it must be attributed to injury. Vick said this week that he's good to go, and he credited the Eagles' doctors for their continuing treatment of his injuries. By kickoff, he'll have had nearly two weeks to rest and heal. But against the speed of the Green Bay defense -- notably linebacker Clay Matthews -- Vick will need to mirror the player who throttled the Giants in that eight-minute sprint to victory in Week 15.
If he can be that quarterback, Vick and the Eagles could have a long run -- one that could include a stop in Atlanta, his old haunt. An Eagles-Falcons matchup at the Georgia Dome might make Eagles-Packers at the Linc look like a picnic.
2. The Packers will either be worn out or inspired by their Week 17 tussle against Chicago. There are two schools of thought bubbling up following Green Bay's win-or-go-home victory against the Bears. The first is that the Packers expended a remarkable amount of energy in a physical, wear-you-down battle against their hated division rival, and that they could have weary legs by the time they reach Philadelphia. The second is that the Packers will ride the positive momentum from a season-saving win and could be the most dangerous team in the postseason.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. In the Packers' favor has been their resiliency all season, especially in the face of devastating injuries that might have sunken weaker teams. "I think it says a lot about the system," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "You have to have the flexibility and diversity to play a 16-game season, but also deal with the injuries that may occur. We've obviously been on the high end this year and it's been a real challenge, but they've done a great job adjusting every week."
3. While the Eagles' defense has been historically dominant under Andy Reid, this year's unit appears vulnerable. Just two years ago, Reid and the Eagles' late defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, believed they brought their best-ever defense into the postseason (the Eagles advanced to the NFC championship game, where they lost to the Arizona Cardinals). This season, youth, injury and mistakes have taken their toll on defensive coordinator Sean McDermott's unit.
Reid, when asked about the Eagles' penchant for giving up points in the high-scoring NFL, said: "Well, I think there are some pretty good offenses out there, too. We're always striving to play even better on defense, and offense, for that matter. But I would tell you that offenses are pretty explosive in this league."
Can the Eagles' defense hold up for a long Super Bowl run? Can it hold up in the face of an explosive Green Bay offense? Philadelphia has already lost safety Nate Allen (ruptured patellar tendon) and defensive end Brandon Graham (torn ACL) for the season, but the defense might get middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (dislocated elbow) back at some point this postseason, though unlikely against Green Bay. That means it will be up to defensive end Trent Cole and safety Quintin Mikell to lead, inspire and make game-changing plays.
For a quarterback whose athleticism coming out of Cal was questioned by some (including Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who was then the 49ers offensive coordinator), Rodgers' ability to make plays outside the pocket is one of his chief assets. It also contributes to one of his better stats. He rushed for a career-high 356 yards in 64 carries this season, good for a 5.6 average, and established himself as a legitimate threat to move the chains with his feet. Only Michael Vick (100 carries, 676 yards, 6.8 average) boasts better rushing numbers at the quarterback position.
While Rodgers sustained a concussion on a run against Detroit this season, he remains unafraid to pull the ball down when his targets are covered. If Eagles' pass rushers get too far up the field, Rodgers will take advantage of the open space, a skill he has steadily improved upon in his years as a starter. (He averaged 3.7 yards a carry in 2008 and 5.4 yards in 2009). He has also became better at protecting the football. After fumbling 20 times in his first two seasons as a starter -- and losing seven of those -- Rodgers fumbled four times this season and only lost one.
Could this be the game that tests the NFL's new overtime rules? The Eagles and Packers are as evenly matched as any two teams on wild-card weekend. Green Bay's team speed on defense will be the difference. Packers 27, Eagles 24.