By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011; 12:13 AM
PHILADELPHIA - With the Philadelphia Eagles trailing by five points, with less than a minute to go, and with Michael Vick dropping back - looking squarely downfield - there was little reason to believe a ball wouldn't drop from the sky and settle into the hands of rookie wide receiver Riley Cooper.
"I was kind of by my guy," Cooper said, and that he was, drifting to the back of the end zone with Green Bay defensive back Tramon Williams gliding with him. Vick, the Eagles quarterback, let loose from the 35-yard line. He didn't need to go for the end zone, but he did.
"I got greedy," he said.
Why, in this season of Vick's personal and professional turnabout, wouldn't he? He needed one more play in a season full of them. Just one more.
"I thought we were going to win the game," Vick said.
They did not, however, because Williams intercepted the ball, sealing the Packers' 21-16 victory with 33 seconds remaining Sunday evening in an NFC first-round playoff game, the last play of Vick's comeback year. NFL seasons end abruptly, not with the seven-game grind of Major League Baseball or the NBA. And when Vick's pass settled into Williams's hands, his first season as a starter since he pleaded guilty to federal charges involving a dogfighting ring - indeed, since he spent 21 months in prison - crashed to a halt. In 2010, he was more MVP candidate than felon, and Sunday night, he was left to answer the same questions elite quarterbacks deal with in such situations, regardless of their pasts.
"This one hurt more than any of my previous seasons that I played a full season and had an opportunity to play in the playoffs," Vick said. "I didn't finish."
Vick and the Eagles didn't finish for a variety of reasons, some of them self-inflicted - missed field goals of 41 and 34 yards by place kicker David Akers, seven penalties - and some delivered directly by the Packers. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw for three touchdowns and rookie running back James Starks, who Coach Mike McCarthy listed as inactive as recently as two weeks ago, rushed for 123 yards, 22 more than he had gained all season. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews was a menace, and the Packers, a wild-card entry, will play at top-seeded Atlanta on Saturday night for a chance to advance to the NFC championship game for the first time since 2007 - when Rodgers still served as Brett Favre's backup.
"This is the way it's going to be," McCarthy said. "We're on the road. You play uphill when you get off the bus, and you have to overcome the atmosphere that you're playing in. . . . It feels good."
A much different sentiment rippled through the home locker room. The Eagles lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs for the second straight year, and as wide receiver DeSean Jackson said: "It's not almost. It is the same feeling from last year."
Last year, though, Donovan McNabb still quarterbacked the Eagles, and Vick was a backup trying to restore his image. McNabb's offseason trade to Washington, however, gave Vick the opportunity for a transcendent season. He took the starting job from Kevin Kolb in September, and by midseason, he was the talk of the league.
"Just to see how he continues to redeem himself, that's amazing," Packers wide receiver Donald Driver said. "Everybody gets a second chance in life, and he got a second chance to prove to the world that he's still one of the best quarterbacks in the game."
On Sunday, he played against another of the best quarterbacks in the game. Rodgers's touchdown passes - seven yards to Tom Crabtree in the first quarter, nine yards to James Jones in the second, and 16 yards to running back Brandon Jackson in the third - helped Green Bay to a 21-10 lead.
Vick, though, responded with a 13-play drive, one he finished with a one-yard plunge into the end zone on fourth down. With 4 minutes 2 seconds remaining, the Eagles - who failed on the two-point conversion attempt - trailed, 21-16. And with 1:45 remaining, they got the ball back, 66 yards separating them from the extension of Vick's fantasy season.
"I had an upbeat feeling about myself," Vick said. "I felt like I was in control."
In quickly finding Jackson for 28 yards, that he was. He hit Cooper on a slant on third down to move the Eagles to the Green Bay 27, and looked calm.
Then came the play that decided the game. Vick called for four Philadelphia receivers to run four vertical pass routes. Vick pump-faked once, then let loose. He could have, he said, checked down to the running back. He didn't. He looked for Cooper, shadowed by Williams, down the left sideline.
"At that point," Williams said, "I knew I was going to make a play on it."
When he did, the Eagles' season was over. Vick's contract is up this offseason, and there's a chance - a small chance - his renaissance season will be his only one as a starter here. After all that happened in 2010, the choice he made on that final throw will gnaw at him.
"It's a bad way to go out," Vick said. "But hey, I went out swinging."