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Starks, defense keep Packers in high gear

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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Posted Jan. 10, 2011 @ 4:25 p.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

One day after the Packers’ first playoff victory in this year’s postseason tournament — following four consecutive games to finish the regular season that had the look and feel of playoff matchups against the Patriots, Giants and arch-rival Bears plus the wild-card game at Philadelphia — one observation sticks out.

If the Packers are to become the first No. 6 playoff seed to win the Lombardi Trophy, their sixth-round draft choice this season probably will be a major reason.

Don’t look now, but RB James Starks, who has had his share of ups and downs this season, has given the Packers an unexpected lift in their quest for Super Bowl glory, coming up huge in the team’s tense 21-16 wild-card victory over the Eagles and Michael Vick Sunday in Philadelphia. Entering the game on Green Bay’s second possession, Starks exploded for 27 yards the first time he ran the ball, setting the tone for a nicely balanced offense when it was needed most. Running with great determination, Starks never stopped picking up positive yardage, finishing the afternoon with 123 yards — the most by a Packers back this season — on 23 carries.

Green Bay’s defense pitched in with an equally determined effort, making Vick’s head spin with frequently shifting coverages and judicious blitzes while setting the stage for a potentially captivating rematch five short nights from now against the No. 1-seeded Falcons.

The PFW Spin

Live! From Atlanta! It’s Saturday night!!!!! Eat your heart out, Jim Carrey. The best prime-time show of the year could be in the offing when the Packers come a calling to the Georgia Dome in a rematch of a tight-as-a-drum Week 12 game won by the Falcons 20-17 on PK Matt Bryant’s 47-yard field goal with nine seconds remaining.

There were a lot of reasons the Packers came up short in that game, but the biggest one was probably the running attack’s failings, managing a mere 77 yards on 23 carries in a game in which Green Bay gained 418 yards but converted only 4-of-11 third downs and struggled mightily in short-yardage situations. Starks was buried on the inactive list for that game, but you’ve got to think he will be more than a little active for the rest of the postseason after his eye-opening effort against the Eagles yesterday.

As for Green Bay’s defense, it continued the roll it has been on much of the last month with a terrific overall effort in Philadelphia, culminated appropriately enough by CB Tramon Williams’ leaping interception with 44 seconds remaining and the Eagles making a furious last-ditch comeback attempt.

“Everybody is buying in,” Pro Bowl LOLB Clay Matthews told Pro Football Weekly on Monday morning. “We’re obviously a lot more comfortable with the scheme in its second season. We have players on the field all the time who are fantastic athletes.

“We are a team that’s growing up before the nation’s eyes.”

If Matthews treats Falcons ORT Tyrone Clabo this Saturday night the same way he did Philadelphia ORT Winston Justice Sunday — Justice was fit to be tied against the relentless Matthews, drawing three false-start penalties and allowing one sack — and Starks gives Atlanta’s run defense the same kind of wake-up call he delivered to the Eagles’ run stoppers, North Texas in early February will seem more and more like a reasonable destination.

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