It took the Atlanta Falcons just one game to show how willing they are to fight—literally—to become the top team in the NFC.
After beating Philadelphia at home in a heated rematch of last season’s NFC championship game, the Falcons journey to Seattle for a meeting with the Seahawks.
Atlanta lost a divisional playoff to the Eagles in 2003 before January’s 27-10 defeat in the NFC title game, but the Falcons came out swinging Monday night and jumped out to an early lead in a 14-10 victory.
“They thought they were going to bully us around,” Falcons newcomer Ed Hartwell said. “Hey, we’re not going to be bullied.”
The teams started jawing during warmups, a scuffle broke out and punches were thrown. When it was all sorted out, Philadelphia’s Jeremiah Trotter and Atlanta’s Kevin Mathis had been ejected.
”(Mathis) threw a punch and I tried to block it,” Trotter said. “We were just trash talking. I don’t think anyone should have been ejected.”
Several Falcons were fined for their actions on Monday night.
Defensive tackle Chad Lavalais drew the biggest fine, getting docked $7,500, Mathis and cornerback DeAngelo Hall each received $5,000 fines, safety Keion Carpenter and cornerback Allen Rossum will have to pay up $2,500, and safety Kevin McAdams was fined $1,000.
The Falcons then raced to a 14-0 first-quarter lead as Michael Vick completed a pair of 18-yard passes and scored on a 7-yard run. He tossed a 58-yard pass on the next drive that led to T.J. Duckett’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Vick struggled the rest of the way, throwing an interception and losing two fumbles, but Atlanta’s defense continually stuffed the Eagles ground game. The Falcons allowed just 51 yards rushing, forced three fumbles and intercepted Donovan McNabb once.
Atlanta was also handed a gift with Eagles kicker David Akers missing a pair of 49-yard field-goal attempts. Akers failed on just five attempts all of last season.
The Falcons led the NFL in 2004 with 167 rushing yards per game and showed they might top that category again after piling up 200 yards on the ground Monday. Warrick Dunn led the way with 113 yards on 20 carries, surpassing 7,000 career rushing yards, and Vick broke loose for 68 on 11 attempts.
A trip to the playoffs, though, is a long way off, and the Falcons know one regular-season victory doesn’t make up for two postseason losses.
“We know we’re going to see this team again,” said Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, already looking ahead to another shot at the Eagles in the playoffs.
For at least this week and probably longer, the Falcons will have to pursue another January matchup with Philadelphia without Mathis, as the cornerback injured his left knee in practice Wednesday and won’t play Sunday. He was on crutches in the locker room and being sent for an MRI exam.
“It’s at least a sprain,” coach Jim Mora said. “It locked up on him. He’ll have to be evaluated further before I can tell anything more than that. It’s not good.”
One of Atlanta’s goals this season is to play better on the road, where they went 4-4 last season while going 7-1 at home.
That quest begins against a Seahawks squad looking to rebound after a lackluster performance in a 26-14 loss at Jacksonville on Sunday.
The Seahawks led 14-13 at the half but didn’t score after the break, punting on their first three second-half possessions and finishing the game with three consecutive turnovers.
The game was one of Hasselbeck’s worst as a pro, as he posted a rating of 61.3, and his four turnovers tied a career high. He threw four interceptions at Arizona last year.
“You’re going to have games like this,” said Hasselbeck, who threw for 246 yards and two scores. “You just have to sulk about it and then get over it.”
Despite arm soreness and a listing on the team’s injury report, Hasselbeck is expected to play Sunday.
“His arm’s sore, so we just backed him off,” Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said. “He’ll play Sunday.”
Alexander carried the ball 10 times for 67 yards in the first half but had only four carries for six yards after that.
The sixth-year back, who ripped the team last year after coming up one yard short of the NFL rushing title, was quiet and understated Monday, wanting to talk more about Seattle’s defense. He said that the ground game, when given a chance, was effective.
“The holes open, the holes close and we take advantage when we can get them,” Alexander said. “I think the running game was OK.”
The Seahawks, who beat Atlanta 28-26 at home in the 2004 regular-season finale, did limit the Jaguars’ Fred Taylor to 76 rushing yards and will need to step it up even more against the Falcons’ powerful ground attack.
“I’m encouraged by some of the things the defense did,” Holmgren said. “They’ll only get better.”