Sunday, December 6, 2009
Vick grabs spotlight in Atlanta return
By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com
ATLANTA -- It's not often that a defense pitches a shutout until the final play of the game, limits an opponent to fewer than 300 yards, accounts for 14 points with takeaways, mounts a goal-line stand and still doesn't merit headlines.
Then again, it's not often that quarterback Michael Vick runs for a touchdown and throws for another in the same game, and plays more than just a cursory role in the outcome.
It has been 39 months, in fact, since Vick accomplished the daily double in the same outing and lived up to his onetime superstar status.
"I'm a believer in the fact that patience is worth having, and that everything happens for a reason," Vick said after the Philadelphia Eagles' 34-7 drubbing of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. "Like today, it was just meant to happen."
The measure of revenge for the once-banished quarterback -- who played only seven snaps but had a huge impact -- pushed the Eagles' winning streak to three games and left Philadelphia (8-4) squarely in the NFC playoff race. The loss was the Falcons' third in four games and dropped them to 6-6. It not only jeopardized the franchise's playoff aspirations; it could also keep alive one of the NFL's most ignominious records: Atlanta has never posted consecutive winning seasons.
"I told our guys last week that basically we're no longer in the NFC South. We're in the wild-card division," said coach Mike Smith, whose club played without quarterback Matt Ryan, tailback Michael Turner, wideout Michael Jenkins and two offensive line starters.
The path to a second consecutive wild-card entry for Atlanta, which finished 11-5 in Smith's 2008 debut season, only figures to get more difficult. New Orleans, one of two remaining unbeaten teams in the league, visits the Georgia Dome in Week 14.
Michael Vick made a successful return to Atlanta -- despite logging only seven snaps.
A Falcons-Saints matchup, no matter where the game is played, is typically a bloodletting. But emotions can't boil much higher than they did Sunday, with Vick's first appearance in Atlanta since he spent nearly two years in prison on federal dogfighting charges and was released by the Falcons.
Still, plenty of fans arrived at the Georgia Dome wearing Atlanta jerseys with Vick's No. 7 across the front. The fans who made Vick the biggest sports name in this city -- but who also made him one of the more polarizing athletes in local history -- had a mixed welcome for the quarterback. When he appeared for warm-ups and then lined up in the Wildcat formation in the first quarter, Vick was jeered vociferously. But with the Eagles leading 27-0 with 14:18 left, the remaining crowd of mostly pro-Vick supporters chanted "We want Vick."
"That was [gratifying]" Vick said. "That meant something."
Before Sunday's game, he had played sparingly, completing only 3 of 9 pass attempts for 6 yards and rushing 15 times for 65 yards. He had zero passes or runs for touchdowns.
But he scored his first touchdown since Oct. 15, 2006, on a 5-yard run up the middle in the third quarter. In the final quarter, after completing a 43-yard bomb to wideout Reggie Brown, Vick culminated the drive with a 5-yard TD toss to tight end Brent Celek off a bootleg.
It marked the first time since Sept. 17, 2006, that Vick had run and thrown for a touchdown in the same game. He claimed coach Andy Reid had told him earlier this week that he would account for two touchdowns.
In all, Vick logged seven snaps, rushing four times for 17 yards and completing both of his pass attempts for 48 yards. On his other play, he pitched out to Brown, who lost 3 yards on an end around.
Last week, a Philadelphia assistant coach told ESPN.com that there was a debate in the staff over whether to use Vick more against Atlanta because of his obvious emotions, or to employ him even less than usual because he might try too hard to make a play. But the balance on which Reid and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg settled was very effective.
"We got things in with the natural flow," Reid said. "We were able to do it without disrupting our offense, and without [Vick] having to establish a pace for us."
Asked if he felt Vick was particularly motivated for the contest, Reid said, "I think he was a little juiced up."
Philadelphia teammates agreed. Cornerback Sheldon Brown -- who played an exceptional game with three tackles, two passes defensed and an 83-yard interception return for a score -- agreed that Vick was especially focused during the week. "Even when he was just running the scout team, he had that special look in his eye," Brown said.
The Eagles' defense looked pretty special, as well. Had it not been for Vick's homecoming, the unit certainly would have commanded the spotlight. It allowed the Falcons just four third-down conversions. Until the final possession, the Eagles had only once allowed Atlanta quarterback Chris Redman -- subbing for the injured Ryan -- more than three straight completions.
Surprisingly, the blitz-crazed Eagles didn't bring extra rushers against Redman very often, normally choosing to drop seven defenders into coverage, but still exerted good pressure. Besides Brown's interception return, the biggest moment for the defense came when it kept the Falcons out of the end zone after Atlanta had gained a first down at the Eagles' 7-yard line late in the first half.
On fourth-and-goal from the 2, the Eagles stacked up tailback Jason Snelling well shy of the goal line.
"I think that was really the tone-setter," Brown said of the goal-line stop.
"That, and obviously Michael's plays."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.