PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Aaron Rodgers watched helplessly from the sideline, hoping the defense could get a big stop to preserve his biggest win.
When Tramon Williams intercepted Michael Vick’s pass in the end zone, Rodgers threw his hands up and pumped his fist. It was a low-key celebration by Brett Favre standards, but perhaps one that was fitting — Rodgers has finally shed the ghost of Favre.
He’s building his own legacy with the Green Bay Packers, and now has his first playoff victory. Rodgers threw three touchdown passes while seldom-used rookie James Starks ran for 123 yards in a 21-16 wild-card win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.
“Well, in all my time being a football fan, I have never seen one player win a game all by himself,” Rodgers said afterward. “It’s a good team win for us and I will let you guys write what you want on that.”
Rodgers was merely a spectator while Vick nearly led the Eagles back. But Williams picked his thrown intended for Riley Cooper with 33 seconds left to end it, sending the sixth-seeded Packers (11-6) to Atlanta (13-3) for a divisional playoff game next Saturday night.
Favre may have run on the field and carried Williams off on his shoulder after that play, a big grin on his face. Rodgers is a little more subdued than No. 4, though. He grabbed his helmet and went out to kneel down for the final play.
“It is a tough position as a quarterback to be on the sidelines and not be able to have an impact on that play,” Rodgers said, “just hoping that the defense comes up with a stop.”
Rodgers has shown patience before. He waited three years to become Green Bay’s starter and took over after 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.
“Milestone? That’s what you talk about. We don’t look at it that way,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Aaron’s got a lot of football left in front of him. He’s going to be playing for a long time, and I think those conversations should be talked about at the end in my opinion.”
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 new starters, and a much stronger defense.
Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson and Co. contained Vick for the most part. He 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.
“I feel like I got greedy and took a shot at the end zone,” Vick said of his last pass. “I didn’t throw the ball I wanted and got picked.”
Vick has come a long way since he was one of the game’s biggest stars during his days in Atlanta. 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.
He can go to Hawaii now because the Eagles (10-7) are going home.
This was the Packers’ third straight win in an elimination game. They routed the Giants on Dec. 26 to stay alive in the playoff race, and beat Chicago last week to secure a 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.
“We can all count, and those points would have helped,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said.
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 have had trouble running 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.
Jackson and Cooper both thought Vick should’ve spiked the ball and called a huddle. But he had other ideas.
“I just feel we rushed that last play and we didn’t have to rush it,” Jackson said.
Trailing 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.
Green Bay responded, with Rodgers throwing a 16-yard TD pass to Brandon Jackson to extend the lead to 21-10, and the Eagles were unable to rally all the way back.
Notes: The Packers are 1-2 in three road playoff games against Philadelphia. … Starks had the most yards rushing in the postseason by a rookie in franchise history.