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THE PACKERS-EAGLES WILD-CARD GAME WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A SHOWCASE for quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Michael Vick. No one expected James Starks's coming-out party. Certainly not Starks, who rushed for a Green Bay rookie playoff record 123 yards. "Each week I go in to practice not knowing what's going to happen," he said after the game. "Whatever opportunity I'm given, I take it."
Of all the injuries the Packers suffered this season, none was more costly than the season-ender to Ryan Grant in Week 1 against the Eagles. Grant is the perfect running back for Green Bay—one who controls close games with consistent power. Fill-ins Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn could do certain things that Grant could do, but neither was the whole package of speed and power. The closest thing to the 6' 1", 222-pound Grant turned out to be the 6' 2", 218-pound Starks, a star for the University at Buffalo who fell to the sixth round of the draft after missing his final college season with a shoulder injury. Starks started the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. He was activated on Nov. 9, sat for two games, then busted out for 73 yards against the Niners in Week 13. But he ran for just eight yards the following week and was inactive in Weeks 15 and 16.
Then came the wild-card game. When the Packers were trying to hold the ball and respond to a Vick-led rally in the second half, they saw that their line was having success against the Eagles' small defensive front and turned to the seldom-used rookie. Starks carried the ball eight times for 51 yards in the first half, 15 times for 72 in the second.
"[Starks] established a hot hand, and I rode it," 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 answered critics by getting his first playoff win. Though he ended up with just 180 passing yards (completing 18 of 27 attempts), he helped Green Bay jump out to a 14--3 first-half lead by keeping drives alive with big third-down passes. "I thought that we were going to have a few more passing attempts," he said, "but the way that James was running, we just stuck with it."
Another reason the Packers stuck with the run was hiccups in the passing game. Receiver James Jones dropped what would have been a 63-yard touchdown before halftime, and Donald Driver left in the fourth quarter with an injury. Also, the Eagles did a great job on top target Greg Jennings; Green Bay's longest pass play was just 20 yards. That lack of explosiveness allowed Philly to hang around and gave Vick the chance to almost duplicate his Week 15 comeback win against the Giants.
With less than 10 minutes to play Vick engineered a scoring drive that narrowed the Packers' lead to 21--16. He got one more opportunity with 1:45 left and was driving down the field when he went for the kill shot to Riley Cooper in the end zone. Green Bay's Tramon Williams, however, intercepted it at full extension to complete the win.
The Packers advanced to the next round with a new weapon in their arsenal: Starks, whose wild ride from the PUP list to playoff stardom was not over yet.