Lambeau playoff stunner made Vick a force

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Hardy Nickerson can still remember the queasy feeling in his stomach.

Playing in what would be the final game of his illustrious 16-year career, the veteran middle linebacker charged onto the Lambeau Field tundra brimming with confidence on the night of Jan. 4, 2003. He wasn't the only Green Bay Packers player who felt good about his team's chances.

The Pack had never lost a home playoff game, and they were greeted by 65,358 boisterous fans and delightful snow flurries. The underdog Atlanta Falcons had lost at Lambeau during the regular season and had a 22-year-old quarterback competing in his first playoff game – against a future Hall of Famer known for dominating in chilly conditions.

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Vick and Favre after the Falcons' stunning upset.
(Darren Hauck/AP Photo)

All Michael Vick(notes) did was march the Falcons right down the field for a defiant, game-opening touchdown, outplay Brett Favre(notes) and leave Nickerson and everyone else in Green Bay feeling sick in a 27-7 victory.

"We went out there thinking, 'No one's gonna beat us here, in the cold, and certainly not this team,' " Nickerson recalls. "But the Vick Factor showed up big. The cold didn't affect him at all, and he gave us fits. We were in scramble mode all night, and we just couldn't handle him. It seemed like everything we threw at him, he'd make us pay."

As Vick awaits his release from federal custody following a dogfighting scandal that robbed him of his freedom, fortune and reputation, it's fashionable to write off his football career as a fantastic flop – a disheartening example of squandered potential. He's commonly portrayed as having been skittish in the pocket, unable to read defenses and brutally inaccurate – a glorified halfback playing behind center.

While there are some legitimate shreds of truth behind those critiques, especially when considering the latter stages of his six-year career with the Falcons, many people forget that Vick had succeeded at an exceptionally high level in some pressure-packed situations.

Think Vick was merely an athletic freak who improvised his way to a few flashy victories before the rest of the league caught on? If so, you have a short memory. In that landmark game at Lambeau, Vick, in his second NFL season, put forth a comprehensive performance that announced him as a legitimate force.

After the game Favre, according to Sports Illustrated, told Vick, "I'm proud of you. You're going to be a superstar in this league."

Two years later Vick led Atlanta to a 30-point playoff victory over the St. Louis Rams and into the NFC championship game, which they lost to the Philadelphia Eagles.

That spectacular Saturday night in Lambeau, however, was the moment when the rest of the NFL dropped its collective jaw.

"The odds were against us, going up against Brett Favre in Lambeau in the cold, but we knew Mike gave us a chance to do something special," former Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan recalls. "In our locker room, guys kept saying, 'They ain't never seen nobody like Michael Vick,' and that's exactly how it played out.

"I think people forget what kind of quarterback he was – how fast he was able to move away from defensive ends and cornerbacks and how it messed with a defense. He was on the verge of stardom. He was going to surpass every rushing record for a quarterback, and his passing had so much potential. He was showing that we were on the verge of a brand-new breed of quarterback."

“ We saw Brett every day in practice, so we weren't usually blown away by another quarterback's arm strength. But Vick had a slingshot, and he could put some hot sauce on the ball like nobody else.”

– Former Packers guard Mike Wahle(notes)

In his first playoff game, Vick showed immediately that he wasn't daunted by the circumstances. The Falcons hadn't scored a touchdown on an opening drive all season, but this time Vick coolly marched them 76 yards on 10 plays, finishing with a perfect 10-yard strike to wideout Shawn Jefferson in the back of the end zone.

"The opening drive played out like it was meant to be," remembers former Atlanta halfback Warrick Dunn(notes), who had 104 combined rushing and receiving yards that night. "The tone was set for the entire game. We wanted to show that we belonged."

By halftime it was 24-0, and the Packers' defenders felt as helpless against Vick as Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper(notes), who sat out the game with an injured knee.

"He was very accurate that game, and he made all the right reads of our defense," recalls Sharper, now with the Saints. "And yeah, he did forsake the Lambeau football gods."

On one particularly amazing play late in the first half, it seemed that the football gods had cast Vick in their own image. Facing a third-and-3 from the Green Bay 39-yard line, Vick rolled to his left and was pursued by the Pack's star pass rusher, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila(notes). As KGB went in for the kill shot near the sidelines, Vick somehow slipped past him, reversed field and completed an 11-yard run that left four more Packers defenders grasping for air. He finished the game with 64 yards on 10 rushes, and that was the signature moment.

"I have this vivid memory of KGB closing in and Vick slipping and sliding away," Nickerson says. "He must have had three shots at sacking him on that one play, and he missed every time."

Says Buchanan: "Every time I see that replay, it gives me chills. Watching that from the sideline, we just knew it was going to be our night. But it wasn't just his athletic ability that made him so scary. It was his peripheral vision, his heightened sense of awareness. He had [defenders] behind him, and he somehow knew they were there and was able to dodge them."

Though Vick's passing stats (13 of 25, 117 yards) weren't lofty, the whip-armed lefty left a strong impression on his vanquished opponents, who'd witnessed his throwing skills in a 37-34 overtime victory over the Falcons in the '02 season opener.

"In that first game there was a play where he rolled out to his right, the rush closed in and he fired a ball across the field 50 yards on a line," recalls former Green Bay guard Mike Wahle, now with the Seahawks. We were like, 'Whoa, he just whipped it like it was nothing.' We were thinking to ourselves, 'Oh [expletive].'

"We saw Brett every day in practice, so we weren't usually blown away by another quarterback's arm strength. But Vick had a slingshot, and he could put some hot sauce on the ball like nobody else. From a competitor's standpoint, from an opponent's standpoint, he was the real deal."

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Cletidus Hunt, bottom, was one of the many Packers unable to take down Vick.
(Jeff Hanisch/Getty)

After what Vick accomplished in Green Bay six and a half years ago, his legitimacy was undeniable. As the Falcons celebrated in the game's closing minutes, Dunn understood the significance of the moment: "He was a bona fide quarterback now, a QB that could win games by any means necessary."

Coming off a two-season absence that included 19 months in a federal penitentiary, Vick is a long, long way from that glorious moment. Suspended indefinitely by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in 2007 and released by the Falcons, he's hoping for a chance to hook on with a team and eventually salvage his career.

If reinstated, he'll most likely end up signing somewhere as a backup who, perhaps, gets some snaps out of the Wildcat offense as a novelty weapon. It seems improbable that Vick could scrap his way back to stardom, but those that remember him in his finest hour believe it's possible.

"I think he can still be great," Buchanan insisted. "He's not going to lose that strong arm. I mean, Brett Favre is what, pushing 40? Mike is 29. He's just now reaching his peak.

"All the bullcrap aside, Michael Vick was a ballplayer. If he can handle his business, he still has a lot more to give."