Did the Green Bay Packers suddenly, and nearly by accident, discover a running game in the 18th week of their season? Or was James Starks a one-game fluke who will fade into the background as quickly as he exploded onto the scene?
So goes one of the primary questions this week as the Packers prepare for Saturday night's divisional playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. If you recall, the Packers all but abandoned their running game in the teams' Week 12 matchup at the Georgia Dome. In a 20-17 loss, the Packers got only 26 yards on 11 carries from their running backs. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (51 yards) was their leading rusher, and the Packers used a five-receiver set on 14 of their 59 plays.
Although the Packers amassed 418 total yards in the game, their limited running game hurt them on two red-zone possessions in the first half. Of course, you know where this is going. If Starks can provide anything close to the 123-yard performance he produced Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, well. ...
"That's all we've been hearing," Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said. "That we can't advance without a running game. ... If we can have that, along with Aaron [Rodgers], Greg [Jennings], [Donald] Driver, Jordy [Nelson], James Jones and those guys, watch out."
So after we get past the novelty of Starks' performance against the Eagles, what do we make of it? I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. for some perspective.
"It wasn't a fluke," Williamson said. "He has ability and probably would have been a second-round pick if he had been a 'clean prospect' coming out of college. ... There is no doubt that he is the most talented runner on that team and has fresh legs. He shows vision, power and explosion. I didn't think Philly played the run very well or tackled well, but he got at least what was blocked consistently -- if not more. To me, that is all you can ask and he is capable of doing it."
Starks has played in four games this season, including the playoffs, and has two of their top four rushing performances. The chart speaks equally to his skills and the Packers' relative failure to replace injured starter Ryan Grant. Packers coach Mike McCarthy has already said Starks will get his share of opportunities Saturday against the Falcons. What he does with them will be fascinating.
Technically, the Falcons had the NFL's 10th-best run defense during the regular season. But probably because they were playing from behind so often, Falcons opponents attempted an average of 22.9 running plays against them per game, the second-fewest in the NFL this season. Within those relatively few plays, the Falcons allowed an average of 4.6 yards per carry -- the sixth-highest in the NFL.
In other words, teams ran on the Falcons this season when they tried. Before Sunday, you wouldn't have counted the Packers as a team that would even try.
If nothing else, Starks will force the Falcons to expand their defensive preparation. It will also add more of a threat to the Packers' play-action game, one that was successful all season despite their shaky running game.
Indeed, Rodgers averaged one touchdown pass for every 10 play-action passes he threw during the regular season, according to ESPN Stats & Information (eight in 80 attempts.) That was double the rate of his other 395 attempts.
OK. Enough with the numbers. What does this all mean? Here's where I land: With a one-dimensional offense, the Packers were within three points of the Falcons in November. With the Starks we saw against the Eagles, they have a balance that gives them the potential to finish what they started in Week 12.