The Green Bay Packers took another one down to the wire and provided plenty of nervous moments on Sunday, but they survived.
Three touchdown passes from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a record-setting performance by rookie running back James Starks, and an interception in the end zone by cornerback Tramon Williams with 33 seconds left all combined to provide a thrilling 21-16 victory over Philadelphia in an NFC Wild Card playoff game in front of 69,144 at Lincoln Financial Field.
With the win, the No. 6 seed Packers (11-6) advance to the Divisional round for a game at No. 1 seed Atlanta (13-3) at 7 p.m. (CT) Saturday. It goes without saying how much better this result felt compared to a year ago at this time, when the Packers bowed out in an overtime heartbreaker in Arizona.
"It feels good," Rodgers said. "It's disappointing to lose your last game like we did last year, but we have a lot of resilient guys in that locker room and guys who believe in each other."
Belief was needed in the defense because this one had the makings of another heartbreaker, as Philadelphia and quarterback Michael Vick rallied from a 21-10 deficit with a 75-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Vick's sneak on fourth-and-goal from the 1 made it 21-16 with 4:02 left, but the Eagles failed to get the ensuing 2-point conversion on two attempts (a penalty forced a second try from the 7-yard line), which proved huge.
That's because the Packers could only kill half of the remaining clock and punted the ball back to the Eagles just after the 2-minute warning. Without any timeouts, Vick went to work again, hitting the speedy DeSean Jackson for a 28-yard catch-and-run into Green Bay territory. Moments later Vick threw to Riley Cooper for 11 yards on third-and-10, getting the ball to the Green Bay 27.
Hurrying up and eschewing a spike as the clock ticked under 45 seconds, Vick tried to go right back to Cooper deep down the left sideline, but Williams was in perfect position.
"I'm not surprised they didn't spike the ball," Williams said. "They probably wanted to take a shot at that point, and hopefully it was either incomplete or they catch a touchdown. I guess they were just taking a chance at that point. The ball was kind of floating up there and I was able to get to it."
Williams got his 5-foot-11 frame as high as he could against the 6-3 Cooper and plucked the ball cleanly with two hands for the leaping interception. Williams said he's been measured at 42½ inches on his vertical jump, and he might have needed all of it to make the play.
"I can get up there," Williams said with a smile. "I was pretty high up there. I don't know what I used, but I had enough."
So did the defense, which managed to contain the dangerous Vick and hold him to 33 yards rushing on eight carries, with his longest scramble just 14 yards. He threw for 292 yards on 20-of-36 passing, but he was sacked three times and posted a rating of just 79.9 as defensive coordinator Dom Capers mixed a variety of blitzes and coverage calls, including a spy at times, to keep Vick from knowing what the defense would do.
"It's about limiting Vick's big playmaking ability," said linebacker Clay Matthews, who had a sack and otherwise gave Philadelphia left tackle Winston Justice all kinds of problems. "He loves to take deep shots, he loves to make big plays with his feet. It was moreso corralling him, closing the pocket in on him and not letting him escape, and I think we did that today."
Besides the late one to Jackson, Vick only made two other big plays. He hit wide receiver Jeremy Maclin for a 44-yard gain that led to a field goal late in the first half, and he connected with wide receiver Jason Avant for a 24-yard touchdown just two plays after a Rodgers fumble on a sack gave the Eagles the ball in scoring range.
That brought Philadelphia within 14-10 after the Packers had mostly dominated the first half.
Green Bay overcame an early turnover on a punt when Brandon Underwood was blocked into the ball as it was rolling on the ground and the Eagles recovered at the Green Bay 41. But the defense rose up and got the stop, and Philadelphia kicker David Akers missed wide right on a 41-yard field goal, one of two misses for him on a windy day.
The Packers put together touchdown drives of 68 and 57 yards, with Starks providing a ground game that eventually led to a franchise rookie postseason rushing record of 123 yards on 23 carries. Rodgers (18-of-27, 180 yards, 3 TDs, no INTs, 122.5 rating) finished off both first-half scoring drives with short touchdown passes to tight end Tom Crabtree, his first NFL TD, and James Jones.
The Packers' lead could have been more than 14-3 at intermission had Jones not dropped what might have been a 63-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half.
But the offense came right back after the Rodgers fumble and subsequent score with a big-time answer. Rodgers found veteran receiver Donald Driver (team-high five catches for 56 yards) to convert consecutive third downs, Starks broke off a 19-yard run, and running back Brandon Jackson showed wonderful patience on a screen pass, waiting for his blockers to run interference for a 16-yard touchdown to make it 21-10 midway through the third quarter.
"That was the most important drive of the game," said Rodgers, whose second third-down conversion to Driver was a 20-yard bullet on third-and-10 that helped quiet the crowd. "It was an important time in the game for that. The crowd was just kind of getting back into it. We needed to give our defense a little bit of a break and get it back to a two-score game, and we did that."
From there the Packers simply held on, and they were helped when Akers missed wide right again from 34 yards out early in the fourth quarter. But the Packers managed just two first downs on their last three possessions, giving Vick the opportunity to pull off the comeback.
One could argue the Packers got here because of their defense, and that defense didn't let them down when it mattered most.
"(We knew) that they were going to stop them," Driver said. "We trust our defense."
All the way to the end. Just like the regular season, which required two must-wins the last two weeks just to get in the playoffs. Because of all that, the Packers will continue to carry that fashionable label of a "dangerous" playoff team into the next round.
"To finish the game in that manner where the defense wins the game," Matthews said, "it's only fitting for us.
"I think we've been dangerous all season. Obviously a few things haven't gone our way. We've had a few ups and downs on this roller coaster of a year. But hopefully we're peaking at the right time. Three wins in a row, all playoff-like environments in which we need to win or else we go home. We've got another one on the road now in a very hostile environment. We feel good about where we're at. You can say we're dangerous but we're just playing at the level we know how."