PHILADELPHIA — You can put Aaron Rodgers in that elite quarterback class. He’s got his first playoff victory.
Rodgers threw three touchdown passes, seldom-used rookie James Starks ran for 123 yards and the Green Bay Packers beat Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles 21-16 in an NFC wild-card game Sunday.
Rodgers had to watch from the sideline while Vick nearly led the Eagles back. But Tramon Williams intercepted Vick’s pass for Riley Cooper in the end zone with 33 seconds left to seal the win.
The sixth-seeded Packers (11-6) are heading to Atlanta (13-3) for a divisional playoff game next Saturday night.
Rodgers patiently waited three years to become Green Bay’s starter and took over after Brett Favre’s messy departure before the 2008 season. He long ago made Packers fans forget about Favre, and now has punctuated his impressive resume with his first playoff win in two tries.
It wasn’t Rodgers’ fault Green Bay lost 51-45 in overtime to Arizona last January. These aren’t the same Packers. This patchwork squad has 10 different starters, and a much stronger defense.
“I never felt like there was a monkey on my back,” Rodgers said. “I’m just so proud of these guys. We fought hard today. Big interception by Tramon who’s had a great season for us.”
Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Co. contained Vick for the most part. Vick threw for 292 yards and ran for 33 in his first playoff start since losing the 2005 NFC championship game on the same field as a member of the Atlanta Falcons.
Vick has come a long way since then. He missed two seasons while serving 18 months in prison for his role in a dogfighting operation, played sparingly in a backup role last year and only got his chance after Matthews knocked Kevin Kolb out in Green Bay’s 27-20 win in Philadelphia in Week 1.
Vick made the most of the opportunity. He had the best season of his career and was selected to start the Pro Bowl for the NFC.
Vick can go to Hawaii now because the Eagles (10-7) are going home. This was Green Bay’s third straight win in an elimination game. The Packers routed the Giants on Dec. 26 to stay alive in the playoff race, and beat Chicago last week to secure a playoff berth.
The Eagles were the talk of the NFL after a sensational comeback win at the New York Giants on Dec. 19. But a stunning loss to lowly Minnesota on Dec. 28 cost the NFC East champions a chance at a first-round bye, and it seemed their Super Bowl hopes went down with that defeat.
Then again, the Eagles might have advanced if Pro Bowl kicker David Akers hadn’t missed field goals of 41 and 34 yards.
The supposedly one-dimensional Packers found a running game by giving the ball to Starks. The sixth-round pick who played in just three games had 101 yards rushing all year. The Packers had trouble running all year after Ryan Grant went down for the season in Week 1. But they exposed weaknesses in Philadelphia’s defense.
The Eagles got within 21-16 when Vick sneaked in from the 1 with 4:02 left. The 2-point conversion failed, but the defense held and Philadelphia got the ball back at the Packers 34 with 1:45 left.
Vick completed passes of 28 yards to DeSean Jackson and 11 yards to Cooper before he threw the pick from the 27.
Vick had 175 yards passing and 103 rushing in the season opener against Green Bay, nearly rallying the Eagles back from a 17-point deficit. He said afterward that he wished he played the whole game because he thought the outcome would’ve been different.
He had his chance, and fell short. Down 14-3, the Eagles got back in it when their struggling defense forced a turnover on the first possession of the second half. Darryl Tapp knocked the ball out of Rodgers’ hands and Juqua Parker recovered at the Packers 24.
Vick then made a perfect 24-yard TD pass over the middle to Jason Avant, who was surrounded by four defenders, to cut it to 14-10. But Green Bay responded with a methodical, in-your-face drive. Rodgers threw a 16-yard TD pass to Brandon Jackson to complete the 80-yard drive and extend the lead to 21-10. Jackson waited nicely for his blockers on a perfectly executed screen pass.
The Eagles failed to convert on third-and-1 from the Packers 16 early in the fourth and Akers was wide right from 34 yards out.
The Packers went ahead 7-0 late in first quarter on Rodgers’ 7-yard TD pass to Tom Crabtree. Rodgers kept the drive going by scrambling away from trouble and tossing a 9-yard pass to John Kuhn on third-and-7. He found a wide-open Crabtree on the next play. It was the first career TD for Crabtree, who had just four catches the entire season.
Rodgers used his legs again on Green Bay’s next drive. His 9-yard TD pass to James Jones made it 14-0.
Rodgers niftily sidestepped Parker to avoid a sack on a third-and-2 and tossed a 4-yard pass to Quinn Johnson. He eluded the blitz and ran for 8 yards on third-and-5. Then he escaped pressure and connected with Jones on the run for the score.
The Eagles finally got going on the ensuing possession. Vick ran 14 yards on third-and-10 to give Philadelphia a first down at the Packers 16. But the drive stalled and Akers kicked a 29-yard field goal with 1:11 left in the half.
The Packers should’ve led 21-3 at halftime except Jones dropped a perfectly thrown deep pass in the final minute that would’ve been a 63-yard TD. Jones beat Asante Samuel on a fly pattern, but the ball bounced out of his hands.
Jones had issues with drops during the season. A disappointed Rodgers fell to his knees and put his hands on his helmet when he saw the ball hit the ground.
The Eagles had trouble picking up the blitz in recent weeks and the Packers took advantage right away. Desmond Bishop blew past the line untouched from Vick’s blind side and sacked him for a 9-yard loss on the first play from scrimmage. Philadelphia had to punt and then got the first break.
Brandon Underwood accidentally kicked the ball and the Eagles recovered at the Packers 41. But they didn’t capitalize on the opportunity as Akers missed from 41.
The Packers were preseason favorites to reach the Super Bowl, but a slew of injuries took a toll. Fifteen players went on injured reserve, with Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley among the six starters.
The Eagles lost two key starters — center Jamaal Jackson and fullback Leonard Weaver — for the year in Week 1. Starting safety Nate Allen also was among 10 Philadelphia players on IR.