Traffic congealed on Northside Drive 2 1/2 hours before kickoff Sunday night. Ninety minutes later, the line to enter the Georgia Dome was 10-deep and 10-wide. From the crush of humanity, you’d have thought somebody famous was in town.
Actually, somebody famous was. Michael Vick was once the only compelling reason to watch the Falcons, and now he’s a both ex-Falcon and ex-con. In Philadelphia he has become the polished player he never was here, and on this night Vick would oppose a quarterback who’s the pride of Old Penn Charter School, a quarterback some Atlantans insist will never be as good as No. 7.
The vagaries of professional football had kept Matt Ryan and Vick from gracing the same NFL field. When Vick played here as a reserve in December 2009, Ryan was hurt. When Ryan played in Philly last October, Vick was hurt. But now the moment was at hand, and you could have game-planned a full summer and not concocted a more loaded Week 2 collision.
The Falcons, who some have cast as Super Bowl champs-to-be, entered on a six-game losing streak. Granted, four of those were exhibitions, but the first and last of the six were troubling.
The Falcons had been embarrassed by a hot quarterback wearing green back in January, and on Opening Day in Chicago they’d been bulldozed by Brian Urlacher. They needed this game not just to prove that, almost five years after Vick had last taken a snap as a Falcon, they’d emerged from his considerable shadow; in more pragmatic terms, they needed it to remind themselves they know how to win.
Three minutes into the third quarter, the Falcons were on track to doing both. They led 21-10 largely because Vick kept giving them the ball. (With a former Atlantan working for Philly and a native Philadelphian playing for Atlanta, sometimes it gets confusing.) Perhaps trying to earn his way into the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, Vick fumbled twice near the end of the first half and threw an interception to open the second.
Down 11, the Eagles responded with a quick touchdown — the Eagles are nothing if not quick — and then Ryan threw an interception and then Matt Bosher, who punts for the Falcons, dropped one out-of-bounds at the 20. This, if you’re a punter, is usually a good thing. Trouble was, this punt plopped down on the Falcons’ 20. Soon the visitors led by 10, and that might have been that. Except for one thing.
Vick was gone. He’d been hit on a pass and driven into one of his blockers. He left for the locker room with what was described as a neck injury — as he exited, he responded to boos by pointing to the scoreboard — and suddenly a game gone wrong was winnable again. The Falcons were 10 points in arrears, but they had more than a quarter left and they were facing a quarterback named, appropriately, Kafka.
“A lot of ebbs and flows,” Mike Smith, the Falcons’ coach, would say afterward.
With 4:48 to play, the Falcons were again in front. Ryan had been having an odd game — he had thrown three touchdown passes but had dealt two interceptions and been hurried and harried — but reverted to precise form with his team under duress. His fourth touchdown pass brought the Falcons close, and then Michael Turner galvanized the go-back-ahead surge with a 61-yard burst and a scoring sweep.
A four-point lead with 4:48 remaining wouldn’t have seemed a cushion against Vick, but against Mike Kafka the dynamics were rather different. On such a bizarre night, though, it somehow made sense that we’d be handed a Kafkaesque finish. The Philly sub led his team upfield, and was it possible the fancied Falcons would slip to 0-2 having been beaten by the namesake of a famed existentialist?
Er, no. Jeremy Maclin dropped a fourth-down pass that would have given the Eagles a first down at the Falcons’ 15, and the home side had done the job. It had beaten Michael Vick’s team while battering Michael Vick, and it had won a game that filled an immense need.
“It was perseverance,” Smith said. “You can’t overstate that.”
No, you can’t. Sometimes it matters less how well you play than how hard. This was such a night. The Falcons didn’t look nearly their best, but there’ll be time enough for fine-turning. This was one of those games that had to be won by any means necessary, and it was.
By Mark Bradley