- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The NFL playoffs mean big games, big plays and big questions. Among others, last week’s big questions concerned Peyton Manning beating New England and playing outside in bad weather (neither answer made Indianapolis Colts fans happy). Sunday’s game between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles raises at least two more:

After three straight losses in the NFC Championship game, do the Eagles finally win one and get to the Super Bowl? And is Falcons quarterback Michael Vick something more than the most fun player in the league to watch?

The answers might be inextricably linked.

In leading Atlanta to a 47-17 victory over the St. Louis Rams in the division playoffs last week, Vick neither passed nor ran for the most yards. He merely was the most exciting, electrifying and influential presence on the field.

“He’s the best all-around player in the league,” Rams coach Mike Martz said. “Obviously, he’s the best athlete. You’ve got to account for him first and foremost.”

Martz said this last week, before Vick and the Falcons shredded his defense for 327 yards on the ground.

The Rams’ scheme, such as it was, was based on containing Vick and the Atlanta running game, often one and the same. The Falcons lacked a 1,000-yard runner this year, but Vick, with 902 yards, came close, and Atlanta led the league in rushing.

Against the Rams, Vick ran for 119 yards, a playoff record for a quarterback, on just eight carries. Running back Warrick Dunn gained 142 yards.

“We were ready, and this is a very exciting time for us,” Vick said after the game. “This is a game that we worked all year for, and everyone was at home watching, so why not go out there and enjoy it?”

Said St. Louis defensive end Leonard Little: “We worked against it all week, but we just couldn’t stop it. Ain’t no science about it. We just couldn’t stop it.”

Throwing short and wisely, Vick also completed 12 of 16 passes for 82 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Not only did he use his unworldly speed and agility (a product of nature, not science) to elude Rams defenders, the omnipresent threat of Vick taking off upfield, Little said, caused the defense to play back on its heels.

“You always have to worry about [Vick] taking off with a bootleg,” Rams defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said afterward. “You have to play things differently because his threat to run is so great. That definitely opens things up for everybody else.”

After missing most of last season with a broken leg, Vick came back healthy but faced a different set of challenges. With a new coach, Jim Mora Jr., a new offensive coordinator, Greg Knapp, and a new system to learn, Vick struggled at times with the timing and the intricacies of the West Coast offense. His 78.1 passer rating this year was tied for 20th in the league with San Francisco’s Tim Rattay. And there were reports Vick’s running was being reined in.

This did not seem to be the case last week.

“I liked that when [the pass] wasn’t there, he made good decisions by taking off and running,” Knapp told reporters after the Rams game. “He gave it a good look and then said, ‘All right, I’m gone.’ We emphasized that with him this week. We said, ‘Hey, you don’t need to play this game like a typical pocket quarterback. You do your thing.’”

Doing his thing is always easier against a weak defense like the Rams’. The Eagles are much better and figure to present Vick and his teammates with problems they did not encounter last week.

“We have to get a lot of pressure on Vick and run him around and see if we can get to him,” said Philadelphia defensive end Jevon Kearse, one of the league’s top pass-rushers.

Kearse said he plans to “spy” on Vick — keep track of his whereabouts, or try to, during much of the game. The Rams attempted a similar ploy, using a defensive back, with disastrous results. Vick set the tone by breaking loose on a 47-yard run on the game’s third play.

Not only did the Falcons face a weaker opponent than what awaits Sunday, the game was played inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. While the home dome advantage probably means less to the run-oriented Falcons than to Manning and the pass-happy Colts, playing in the deafening, chilly conditions of perhaps the league’s nastiest environment, Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, represents a huge test for Vick.

Two years ago, a younger, more inexperienced Vick and a team probably less talented than these Falcons faced a fairly stern test, a wild-card playoff game against the Packers at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field. Atlanta won 27-7.

The next week, the Falcons traveled to Philadelphia for what would be the next-to-last game at Veterans Stadium and lost to the Eagles 20-6. Vick completed 22 of 38 passes for 274 yards but threw two interceptions and was sacked three times. He also ran for just 30 yards on six carries.

Different year, different teams. But the Eagles still know how to deal with agile quarterbacks who like to run. In its 27-14 win over Minnesota last week, Philadelphia contained the Vikings’ Daunte Culpepper for most of the game. Culpepper moves freakishly well for a 265-pounder. Still, he can’t move like Vick. No one can.

“Daunte is fast, but [Vick] is real fast and might be a little bit more elusive,” Eagles coach Andy Reid told reporters Monday. “Daunte is going to knock you out where this guy is going to run around you a little.”

Eagles linebacker Keith Adams added, “They’re similar, but Vick is a lot more explosive. I think Vick is supernatural almost.”

If not supernatural himself, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb is pretty good, too. McNabb might not be as mobile as Vick and his arm probably isn’t as strong, but he has more experience and is regarded as the more complete quarterback. McNabb, the confident leader of the team, also is fueled by the intense desire to get his team to the Super Bowl after falling short three straight times.

Because of their failings, the Eagles would seem to bear most of the pressure. But Vick, who signed a reported 10-year, $137 million contract extension last month, probably also needs to take the next step, especially for a player as marketed and advertised to the extent he is. The athleticism, the speed and the moves are wondrous to watch. But is he the whole quarterback package? Amid all the flash and dash, he completed just 56.4 percent of his passes, threw for just two more touchdowns than interceptions and was sacked a league-high 46 times.

“The offense, since day one when we came here, has been about all 11 guys,” Mora said Monday. “We’ve never put an emphasis on Michael.”

That’s for everyone else to do.

“You can’t underestimate what Michael does for this team,” Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney said. “He’s an incredible athlete, a huge difference-maker, and I think he’s the focal point for any defensive game plan.”

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