The Falcons pulled out all the stops against Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night at the Georgia Dome.
They revamped the defense, passed out white flags and even brought in actor Samuel L. Jackson to whip the crowd into a euphoric frenzy as he told them to “Rise up.”
Quarterback Matt Ryan, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner heard the pleas and helped to lead the Falcons to a 35-31 victory before a nationally-televised Sunday night audience.
Part of the battle for Ryan was not to get caught up in the hype over Vick’s return to Atlanta as a starting quarterback.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for our guys in the locker room for handling everything the right way and focusing the entire week,” Ryan said.
It was a brutal and hard-hitting affair with Vick and Ryan spending an ample amount of time down on the Georgia Dome turf.
Vick, the former signal-caller for the Falcons who has rebuilt his career after serving time in federal prison for dog-fighting related charges, left the game in the third quarter with a concussion. He was wrestled to the ground by Falcons safety William Moore. Vick He was roundly booed
by the fans as he pointed to scoreboard, which showed a 31-21 Philadelphia lead at the time.
“When he goes out that changes the dynamic of what they are trying to do as an offense,” Gonzalez said. “We said it on the sideline, if he’s not in there they are going to struggle a little bit.”
Ryan, who struggled for most of the game, got hot in the no-huddle attack and Turner broke loose for a key 61-yard run.
“We didn’t want to fall to 0-2,” Turner said.
Ryan led the Falcons on two 80-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
“We needed to score on each possession because it was now or never,” Gonzalez said. “We switched things up, went to the no-huddle offense and were able to get them on their heels.”
Gonzalez was simply dazzling as he had seven catches for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Turner finished with 114 yards on 21 carries. He put the Falcons ahead for good with a 3-yard touchdown run with 4:48 left in the game.
Ryan threw a career-high four touchdown passes as the Falcons (1-1) bounced back from a season-opening loss. The Eagles dropped to 1-1.
A revamped Atlanta defensive unit, which opened with James Sanders at free safety for Thomas DeCoud and Kelvin Hayden at nickel back for Christopher Owens, started out strong and stopped the Eagles on the first two possessions.
Falcons punt returner Eric Weems next broke loose for a 19-yard runback, setting up the offense at Philadelphia’s 38-yard line and leading to a quick opening score. Ryan threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White for a 7-0 lead, capping a seven-play drive.
The Eagles responded by mixing in quick-hitting run plays to move down the field. The Falcons appeared to have the Eagles stopped, but defensive end John Abraham was offside after a Vick pass fell incomplete on third down. The Eagles likely would have settled for a field goal, but the penalty gave them a first down.
Two plays later, Philadelphia scored when Vick found Jeremy Maclin wide open on a crossing route for a 4-yard touchdown to tie it up at 7-7
The Eagles next found holes in the Falcons’ zone defense. On a third-and-6 from the 41, Vick connected with Jason Avant for a 29-yard gain with Sanders in coverage.
“It felt good to get out there with the guys, but I personally have a lot of work to do,” Sanders said. “That was my first extended action on the field this entire season. I only played one quarter in the preseason.”
The defense held the Eagles to a field goal after middle linebacker Curtis Lofton deflected a pass in the end zone. Philadelphia’s Alex Henery kicked a 22-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead with 6:46 left in the second quarter.
The Eagles later drove from their 30 to the Falcons’ 4-yard line, ready to pad their lead. On first-and-goal, defensive tackle Peria Jerry pummeled Vick while he was trying to pitch the ball and it came loose. Defensive end Ray Edwards scooped up the fumble and rumbled for 64 yards before he was caught from behind by the Philly’s fleet DeSean Jackson.
“I was trying to score,” Edwards said. “My God father and my daughter are back there in the family room and they are ready to give me some grief about getting caught.”
The Falcons had first-and-10 from the Eagles 24. After a 13-yard pass to Gonzalez, a 5-yard run by Jacquizz Rodgers’ 5-yard run and Turner’s 2-yard run, Gonzalez made a spectacular one-handed touchdown grab in the back of the end zone over linebacker Jamar Chaney, reclaiming a 14-10 Atlanta lead.
The half ended after an exchange of turnovers, Vick fumbling again and Ryan throwing an interception.
Opening the second half, the Falcons couldn’t move the ball and punted. From his 40, Vick was chased by Sanders and threw an interception to Hayden. Taking advantage, the Falcons struck quickly with a 32-yard pass to Michael Turner and a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez to make it 21-10.
However, the Eagles regrouped and regained the lead with two of their trademark quick-strike drives, the second after another Ryan interception.
Philadelphia’s 70-yard drive took just 1:56 off the clock, with Maclin scoring on a 36-yard screen play to pull the Eagles within 21-17.
The visitors weren’t done either. After Asante Samuel picked off a Ryan pass intended for Julio Jones, the Eagles’ LeSean McCoy scored on an 8-yard run to put his team ahead 24-21.
McCoy added another touchdown on a 2-yard run with 1:59 left in the third quarter, upping the Eagles’ lead to 31-21, but Vick went out and momentum shifted to Atlanta.
It was time for the Falcons to turn things over to Ryan and their no-huddle attack and stop the Eagles third-string quarterback Mike Kafka, who had to play because Vince Young, the No. 2 quarterback was injured.
After the two touchdown drives and the defensive stop, the Falcons coache’s miscalculated the time and had to punt to the dangerous Jackson.
“That was probably a coaching error, we needed to run the ball,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Not probably, it was a coaching error.”
The game wasn’t decided Lofton batted down the hail mary pass in the endzone.