ATLANTA – Of all the ominous signs heading into his first playoff game, Jim Mora Jr. got slapped by the mother lode. There it was, one day before Mora's biggest game as a head coach, and Michael Vick was pulled over to the side of the road, vomiting.
"If you're driving down for the game and you see Mike Vick puking on the side of the road, maybe you're not so confident," Mora chuckled.
Then again, how could Mora have seen this coming? The Falcons' 47-17 playoff win Saturday was the kind of performance that should unsettle the stomachs of everyone in the NFC. The least-known commodity remaining in the playoffs has crashed into Super Bowl contention.
"Forty-seven points in a playoff game, and all three phases of our game added to it," Mora said. "We scored on offense. We scored on defense. We scored on special teams. You look at that, and it's got some meat to it."
For one game, Atlanta's roster wasn't simply a collection of moons orbiting around Vick. Instead, in dismantling a team that some thought could enter the Georgia Dome and run the Falcons off the field, they looked complete.
Even without wide receiver Isaac Bruce, there were rumblings that Atlanta's defense couldn't handle St. Louis' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense. There were questions about how sharp the Falcons could be after a month of resting key starters. And then there were the obligatory questions about which Vick would show up – the player who struggled in the passing game and made costly mistakes, or who cruised across the football field like Fred Astaire.
All questions were answered in the first half, when Atlanta scored four touchdowns and built a 28-17 lead, deflating the Rams. By the time the night was over the Falcons would set or tie 10 franchise playoff marks, spread out over offense, defense and special teams.
If the Rams are The Greatest Show on Turf, then who are these guys?
"We don't look for a nickname," said cornerback Allen Rossum, who took a punt 68 yards for a touchdown and set an NFL record with 152 yards on punt returns. "We don't look for cliches or anything like that. All we want to do is win games, man."
They did it Saturday with an offense that looked as dynamic pounding the football as any in recent memory. If Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts put poetry into the league's passing game, then Atlanta lends rock and roll to an NFL running attack. Already the No. 1 rushing team in football, the Falcons went to new heights this time, gouging St. Louis' 29th-ranked run defense for 327 yards on 40 carries.
And all of this was accomplished with a less-than-healthy Vick, who got sick after consuming greasy pizza Friday night and couldn't manage to eat anything Saturday. Not that it showed. Atlanta averaged 13.3 yards per carry in the first half, amassing 239 yards among the trio of Warrick Dunn, Vick and T.J. Duckett.
Dunn finished with a career postseason high of 142 rushing yards and two touchdowns while Vick notched 119 yards on eight carries, often using a system of fakes and bootlegs that sent the two players in opposite directions.
"When you have a guy like Mike that's running on one side and (T.J. and I) are running the other way, he tends to take people with him," Dunn said. "Myself, it created some running lanes."
Said tight end Alge Crumpler, "One guy goes one way, one guy goes the other. You have to guess which one has the ball. It's pick your poison."
The winner of Sunday's Philadelphia-Minnesota game will meet the Falcons for the NFC championship. Whoever the opponent, they'll find a team with unusually effective venom in the form of Vick, Dunn and Duckett on offense, returner Rossum on special teams, and a defense that jabs opponents into turnovers.
Link them together, and you have a team that's about to lose its relative anonymity – a group barging onto a stage that has been hogged by New England and Pittsburgh and Indianapolis all season long.
"You know, Philly's been together and working their game for a long time," Mora said. "New England has been together. They've been working it for a long time. Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Minnesota, these teams, their programs are established. The truth is that we're just the new kid on the block. And we're fighting for everything we can get right now."
Now that fight has rolled up onto the Super Bowl's doorstep, where it is impossible to ignore.