PHILADELPHIA — Clay Matthews blew past Brent Celek off the line of scrimmage, pushed aside Winston Justice and sprinted after Kevin Kolb, chasing the quarterback across the field before catching him from behind and driving him hard into the turf.
That one play in the first game changed the course of the season for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kolb sustained a concussion on the hit, paving the way for Michael Vick to come off the bench and star in perhaps the most compelling comeback story in NFL history.
Without Vick, the Eagles (10-6) may be home watching the playoffs instead of preparing for a rematch with Green Bay (10-6) in a wild-card game Sunday.
“If that never takes place, I probably never would have this opportunity,” Vick said. “Who knows? You never know or knew what could happen. I just wanted to take advantage of any opportunity I got, whether as a starter or a backup.”
Matthews doesn’t plan to ask Vick for a portion of his Pro Bowl bonus. The long-haired linebacker figures Vick would’ve eventually had the opportunity to showcase his skills.
“He’s a fantastic athlete,” Matthews said. “I’m sure he would have had his chance to shine. But obviously, I think that helped him out and helped him come back. Now, he’s presenting problems all around the league.”
Despite Vick’s dynamic performance in the second half of the season opener, the Packers held on for a 27-20 victory over the Eagles. But Vick was just getting started.
He had the best season of his career, was selected to start the Pro Bowl, and led Philadelphia to the NFC East title in a year that began with low expectations.
Now Vick and the Eagles get another chance against the Packers. He has to find a way to avoid Matthews, Charles Woodson and others on Green Bay’s menacing defense or he could end up on the sideline like Kolb did.
“Just a very dangerous group,” Vick said. “Clay’s playing some of the best football you’ll ever see out of an NFL defensive player, and Charles — he’s Charles Woodson. He’s been making plays since the beginning of his career. So, it’s great to compete against those guys, but sometimes it brings out the best in everybody.”
Matthews tormented quarterbacks this season. He had 13½ sacks, earned his second straight trip to the Pro Bowl and is a strong candidate for defensive player of the year. Matthews is the focal point of Green Bay’s 3-4 defense and he lines up anywhere, making it difficult for offensive linemen to block him.
“He’s a great player and he has a great motor, loves to play the game,” Eagles coach Andy Reid said. “And he’s deserving of any award he gets. He’s that kind of a player, that caliber of a player and looks like he loves to play the game. So, it’s a great challenge for our offensive line, the guys blocking him, and we’ll come up with a couple things for him.”
The Eagles had a tough time protecting their QBs this season. They allowed 50 sacks, a number that certainly would be much higher if not for Vick’s sensational scrambling skills. Still, Vick went down 34 times, including nine sacks in his last two starts against the Vikings and Giants.
The Vikings took him down six times in a 24-14 victory on Dec. 28, and he had trouble with pressure coming from blitzing cornerbacks. Antoine Winfield sacked Vick, stripped the ball and returned it for a score late in the first half.
The Packers have the personnel to copy Minnesota’s game plan. They can send Matthews after Vick off the edge or from wherever, and Woodson is quite comfortable going after QBs when he’s not providing blanket-type coverage on receivers.
“He’s a future Hall of Fame player, he’s a good player, and they play him in the nickel position,” Reid said of Woodson. “He’s a physical guy. He has great speed. He’s a great blitzer, great blitzer. So that’s how they use him.”
Protecting Vick is essential for the Eagles to have a chance against Green Bay. Vick is coming off a leg injury that bothered him during the loss to Minnesota. He missed three games earlier this year with a rib injury, and he takes a lot of hard hits in the pocket and when he scrambles.
When he has time to throw, Vick proved this year he can be an outstanding passer. But under pressure, he’s struggled a bit lately. Vick has thrown six interceptions in the last five games after not getting picked in the first seven.
“They’re going to come after you, they’re going to try to get you rattled, get you off your square, but that’s football,” Vick said. “You have to just be ready for it, know exactly what you’re seeing and play the game.”