Vick steps out and Ryan steps up

ATLANTA -- His triumphant return to Atlanta ruined by a concussion, Michael Vick clutched his fiancee's arm and shuffled his feet ever so slowly on the long, quiet walk to the Philadelphia Eagles' bus.

At that moment, Vick looked alarmingly vulnerable, the antithesis of the man who hours earlier had eagerly paced the sideline, ready for his first game back as a starter at the Georgia Dome since he turned his world, and the Atlanta Falcons franchise, upside down.

Maybe this was fitting, that Vick would leave the building he once owned beaten and battered. Maybe it was only right that after everything they had been through with Vick, the Falcons were the ones smiling at the end, a 35-31 victory in their pocket.

Atlanta QB Matt Ryan was certainly understandably happy. Perhaps for the first time, he had stepped out of Vick's enormous shadow. Perhaps one day -- if not yet now -- he too will be embraced the way Vick was and, to a large extent, still is. That day will come when Ryan leads the Falcons to a playoff victory, and then another, and then another, and not before.

But this was a big day, too. For Ryan. For the organization. For the fans. This was the day Michael Vick came home, and then left with a loss, and potentially more. He has a concussion. Today the tests will start.

Ryan passed his test Sunday night. He was skittish at times, but smooth at others. He overcame a third-quarter lull that could have cost the Falcons the game, and led two fourth-quarter scoring drives that erased a 10-point Eagles lead. Ryan executed the Falcons' game plan of going after the Philadelphia safeties, the weak part of its secondary, and threw a career-high four touchdown passes, including two to TE Tony Gonzalez, whose skills have not diminished with age.

As is his nature, the even-keeled Ryan, an Eagles fan as a kid growing up in suburban Philadelphia, downplayed the importance of the win. But it was big, make no mistake.

"Having been in the league long enough, a win is a win," Ryan told me after Vick had climbed aboard a nearby bus. "They're all special, that's for sure. This one's early in the year. It put us back at .500. It feels good tonight."

It should, particularly after the Falcons opened the season with a jarring 30-12 loss at Chicago and could have been looking at an 0-2 record today with division foe Tampa Bay up next. Atlanta entered Sunday night's game having been outscored 78-33 in its previous two games, against Chicago and in the playoffs last season against Green Bay. In those two games, according to ESPN's Stats & Information, the Falcons' 23 offensive possessions had ended like this: eight punts, seven turnovers, three touchdowns, two field goals, one turnover on downs and twice either the game or the half ended.

For a team that finished the 2010 regular season 13-3 and had upgraded talent on offense in the offseason, those two losses were unacceptable. A third would have been potentially cataclysmic.

To avoid it, the Falcons wanted to go after the Eagles' safeties and linebackers through the air, and to gash them on the ground with RB Michael Turner. The best defense for Vick was a strong offense that kept him on the sideline, and Ryan in the game.

When Vick was on the field, Atlanta wanted to blitz him constantly -- on upward of 75 percent of his snaps-- and take its chances with Eagles receivers DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin.
The plan was working, thanks in large part to three Vick turnovers in a span of several minutes at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second.

But after Vick led two touchdown drives in a four-minute stretch of the third quarter to take a 24-21 lead, the fans at the Dome, many wearing red No. 7 jerseys, fell eerily silent. They gasped when Vick took an inadvertent hit on the head from one of his offensive linemen, who was trying to keep Falcons defenders off him, and then watched as Vick hobbled to the sideline, spitting out blood. They serenaded him with a mixture of boos and cheers when, after another Philadelphia touchdown gave the Eagles a 31-21 lead, Vick walked to the locker room, pointing at the scoreboard, his night over.

As soon as Vick left, the Atlanta offense stopped pressing. The Falcons turned to Turner, who was a beast to bring down, and kept going to Gonzalez, who finished with seven catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Even with the cornerback trio of Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel, the Eagles could not stop the Falcons, who scored two touchdowns to close out the game.

"Man, right now we don't have an identity, and that's half our problem," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said afterward. "We don't have an identity. We're just going out there, and I feel like right now we've played two games and we haven't played our style of football yet. We've played into the hands of our opponents and at the last minute we come up here and made some plays."

That might be true, but at least they got the win. The plane ride home from Chicago a week earlier had been stone silent. This game just seven days later was sweet, particularly for the quarterback.

"He showed me a lot from last week to this week," Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson said of Ryan. "That says a lot about a quarterback, to go on the road and lose 30-12 and then come back home and play one of your best games."

It was just a game against a guy Ryan got to know for the first time at the Pro Bowl earlier this year. Nothing more. Nothing less. The Falcons are .500. That is what matters most.

"Feels much better at 1-1 than 0-2," Ryan said. "We did what we needed to do. It was a good win."


What I learned from Week 2:

Tony Romo is tough: Romo could hardly breathe because of what might be two broken ribs suffered on the third play of the Cowboys' game against the 49ers, but there he was back in the game in the second half. His 77-yard pass to Jesse Holley on the first play from scrimmage in overtime set up the game-winning field goal in a 27-24 win for Dallas.
Romo was killed last week for collapsing down the stretch against the New York Jets. He deserves major props for sucking it up and leading the Cowboys to a much-needed win. Could be a career-defining moment.

Cam Newton is the real deal: Newton followed up his 422-yard debut performance in Week 1 by throwing for 432 yards against Green Bay. A wasted No. 1 pick by Carolina? Hardly. The trick for the Panthers will be to keep Newton upbeat and focused despite losing games. There will be more losses ahead, but Newton eventually should win more than he loses. He will make rookie mistakes, but he has the "it" factor.

Luke McCown is not the answer in Jacksonville: There really is no reason to wait. It is time for a quarterback change. Against the Jets, McCown completed 6 of 19 passes for 59 yards, with zero touchdowns and four interceptions. Rookie Blaine Gabbert came in at the start of the fourth quarter, and he should be on the field when the Jaguars play at Minnesota this week.

2-0 means different things to different teams: New England certainly expected to be 2-0. But Buffalo, Washington and Detroit? It is early and anything can happen, but for three franchises that have suffered through their share of losing seasons recently, 2-0 creates much-needed optimism and momentum. It gives coaches credibility in the locker room. It makes players want to keep working hard.
The Lions have won six straight going back to last season. You could kind of see this coming. But the Redskins and Rex Grossman? No. Not all.


Issues that will keep coaches awake this week:

Teams that are 0-2, the odds are against you: Since the NFL expanded the postseason to 12 teams in 1990, only 12.4 percent of teams that started the season 0-2 made the playoffs, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. Miami, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Minnesota, Carolina and Seattle, you have your work cut out for you. St. Louis and the New York Giants, you are on the clock.

Kansas City, it is not your year: When you lose a key player the way the Chiefs lost RB Jamaal Charles -- slipping on a piece of plastic trying to get out of bounds against Detroit -- you are in trouble. Charles tore his ACL, becoming the third Chiefs player to suffer a season-ending injury in the past two weeks.

George Edwards, you've got next: All Tom Brady has done in the first three weeks is throw for 940 yards and become the first quarterback to follow a 500-yard game with a 400-yard game. "The sky is the limit," Patriots WR Deion Branch said of his quarterback. It will be up to Edwards, Buffalo's defensive coordinator, to slow the Brady train.


Notable tweets from around the league:

"Can't believe itÂ….I apologize" -- Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who caught 13 of the 15 passes thrown his way for a career-high 171 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-31 loss to Atlanta. However, with less than two minutes left in the game, Maclin dropped a Mike Kafka pass on fourth down that would have given the Eagles a first down inside the Atlanta 20-yard line with less than two minutes to play.

"Gotta finishÂ….#Niners" -- San Francisco safety Donte Whitner, after the 49ers gave up a 24-14 fourth-quarter lead and lost to Dallas in overtime 27-24.

Ashley Fox covers the NFL for ESPN.com.