Barely glancing at his target, the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback flung his black baseball cap into a crowd of screaming fans above a tunnel in the corner of the Georgia Dome end zone leading to the home locker room. Ryan was long gone by the time the hat floated into the waiting hands of a stocky man in a black No. 2 Falcons jersey, the ideal capper to a momentous night for Matty Ice.
Granted, the hookup might have been unintentional. We'll never know, and it doesn't matter. On a night with so much unforeseen and unscripted drama, from the third-quarter concussion that cut short Michael Vick's(notes) Dome-coming to the no-huddle offense that Ryan executed brilliantly in leading his team to a comeback victory, the outcome overshadowed all.
It wasn't particularly pretty or overpowering, his four touchdown passes notwithstanding – it may well have gone the other way had Vick stayed in the game – and it took a fourth-down drop by the otherwise brilliant Jeremy Maclin(notes) to derail a potential Eagles game-winning drive. None of that, however, is Ryan's concern.
He and his teammates needed to get past this psychic barrier, and they blasted through it with urgency and passion. Though Ice is too cool to admit it, the fourth-year quarterback stands to benefit most of all.
For Ryan and the Falcons, it was a matter of necessity. Despite forcing three Vick turnovers, a pair of late first-half fumbles and an interception two minutes into the second half, Atlanta trailed 24-21 with 3:18 left in the third quarter and Philly closing in on another score.
On third-and-8 from the Falcons' 18-yard line, Vick dropped back and released the ball while absorbing a hit from blitzing safety William Moore(notes). While Maclin (13 catches, 171 yards, two touchdowns) made the catch at the Atlanta 9, Vick was spun around on impact, and his head collided with the shoulder of Eagles right tackle Todd Herremans(notes).
[ Video: Michael Vick knocked out of the game ]
A woozy Vick was helped to the sidelines, where he spat up blood as backup Mike Kafka(notes) handed off to halfback LeSean McCoy(notes) for a two-yard touchdown run. The Falcons' former franchise quarterback, who received an alarming amount of love when he returned to the Dome as an Eagles backup in 2009, was booed heartily as he was escorted across the back of the end zone and into the locker-room tunnel.
On his way out Vick pointed to the scoreboard, which read Eagles 31, Falcons 21. Fortunately for the home team, it also indicated that 17 minutes remained.
[ Related: Michael Vick makes crowd aware of score ]
While newly acquired defensive end Ray Edwards(notes) gathered his fellow defenders and exhorted them to keep fighting for four quarters, Ryan got word on the sidelines that the team was going no-huddle.
"It came from upstairs, [Coach] Mike Smith's call," Ryan said. "You gotta love Smitty. Yeah, for sure, I was [happy]."
"Matt is probably at his best when he is in that no-huddle," Gonzalez said as he headed to the parking lot long after the game. "I don't know why. All I can do is speculate, but really, I don't know what it is. He sees the matchups, and he feels very comfortable in that situation. All of us do."
Apparently, Ryan is as adept at calling plays as he is at making them. "Yeah," Asomugha said. "I can tell."
Ryan (17-for-28, 195 yards) led the Falcons on a 12-play, 80-yard drive, cutting the deficit to 31-28 on a one-yard swing pass to fullback Ovie Mughelli(notes). The energized Atlanta defense energized forced a three-and-out, and Ryan no-huddled his way to another 80-yard scoring march, this time needing just seven plays. The biggest was a 61-yard burst down the right sideline on first-and-17 by halfback Michael Turner(notes), who later scored the game-winning TD on a three-yard blast around the right end.
The defense hung on against Kafka, aided by Maclin's drop on a quick pass over the middle on fourth-and-four at the Falcons' 22, and survived an end-zone Hail Mary as time expired to improve to 1-1.
"Oh man, we needed that," said Pro Bowl wideout Roddy White(notes), who caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to give the Falcons a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter. "We played kind of dull and couldn't get our momentum going, but then we went into our two-minute offense and kind of got comfortable with it."
"Oh man, right now we don't have an identity," White said, punctuating his remarks with nervous laughter. "That's half our problem right now. We've got to get back to playing our style of football – run the ball, go play-action, complete third-down passes."
Defensively, the Falcons also have issues, though facing the explosive Eagles (1-1) tends to make things seem worse than they are. Give Atlanta's defenders credit, though, for recognizing the gravity of this game and its symbolic significance for the man who succeeded Vick as "The Franchise."
"This was a huge win, especially after not playing so well last weekend in Chicago," cornerback Dunta Robinson(notes) said, referring to the team's season-opening, 30-12 defeat to the Bears. "Being down and coming back, it showed a lot of character. We didn't want to make this game about two people. We didn't want to make it about Matt Ryan and Michael Vick. We didn't want to put that pressure on one guy. It's a team game. It's not about one man."
Yet removing one very skilled man from the opposing lineup can go a long way toward improving a team's prospects, and though it probably wasn't intentional, getting after Vick and ultimately knocking him out may have helped buoy a team and a city's psyche.
In basketball, after all, your chances of KO-ing Kobe aren't very promising. On Sunday night Vick, who told me in August that "you can't design a defense to stop me," was reminded that there is one way to keep him from doing damage.
"You hate to see great players leave the game," Robinson said. "But Michael Vick will definitely be back."
Said Moore, whose chest shot to Vick set in motion the quarterback's exit: "I don't think he saw me coming. I wrapped him up, and I really didn't think it was that hard of a hit. That's one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Coming up as a kid, I always dreamed of that day when I could come play against Michael Vick. And yeah, of course it was a big game, with all the hype. For us, it came down to pride – to defend the Dome, because it's our house."
Last week, Vick deferentially declared that the Dome is Ryan's house, but the victorious quarterback wasn't even close to going there.
"It's a big win," Ryan said, "but you need to move on."
Matty Ice will, but with a little less pressure in his temples – and, potentially, with very big things in his and the Falcons' future.
I hyped the Bills, I picked the Raiders – and I came away from Sunday's game impressed with both teams. The Bills came back from a 21-3 deficit to win 38-35 in a game that featured five lead changes in the fourth quarter – and had to sweat out a Jason Campbell(notes) hail mary and replay review that confirmed an end-zone interception by Da'Norris Searcy(notes) (and not a game-winning catch by Raiders receiver Denarius Moore(notes)). Quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick(notes) and Campbell each looked terrific, as did halfbacks Fred Jackson(notes) (140 rushing and receiving yards) and Darren McFadden(notes) (143). Said Bills linebacker Nick Barnett(notes) of the Raiders' McFadden: "Big son of (expletive)!!! He runs hard!"… After future Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp characterized the Steelers as "old, slow, and it's over" following their opening-week beat down in Baltimore, they responded with a 24-0 shutout of the Seahawks. "Haha, maybe we will be old again next week," veteran inside linebacker James Farrior(notes) wrote via text. The Steelers, who play the Colts in Indy next Sunday night, are now in a four-way tie for first place in the AFC North. For that they can thank the Titans, who pulled off a 23-13 victory over the Ravens that convinced me of two things: I underestimated Tennessee going into this season, and I underestimated the degree to which Baltimore would face a letdown after its emotional Week 1 victory. … Trailing the Vikings 17-0 at halftime and staring at a 0-2 start, the Bucs looked headed for what amounts to an early season crisis. Outgained 284 yards to 62 in the first two quarters, and after what third-year coach Raheem Morris would later call "arguably our worst half of football since I've been a head coach," third-year quarterback Josh Freeman(notes) stayed cool and did the Josh Freeman thing, rallying Tampa Bay to a 24-20 victory. Freeman didn't do all the heavy lifting – halfback LaGarrette Blount scored the winning touchdown on a four-yard run with 31 seconds to go – but the fact that eight of his 14 career victories have come on fourth-quarter comebacks or in overtime tells you all you need to know. … Finally, after two consecutive embarrassing performances, the Saints' defense came up huge in a 30-13 victory over the Bears. In a clear sign that New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams got the best of Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz (and both are very, very shrewd strategists), Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) was hit repeatedly and sacked six times. "We kicked their ass," said one Saints defender. "They refuse to block blitzes. It was unbelievable how much we hit Cutler."
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That Floyd Mayweather, after his controversial victory over Victor Ortiz, stepped to HBO announcer Larry Merchant during a post-fight interview – that's 80-year-old Larry Merchant. After a farcical fourth round in which Ortiz, having backed Mayweather into the ropes, threw an illegal head-butt, repeatedly apologized, then got knocked out upon absorbing a two-punch combination thrown with his gloves down and the referee looking the other way, Merchant understandably had some questions for the victor and new WBC welterweight champ. Mayweather, who fashions himself an esteemed businessman, didn't like the line of questioning and began behaving like a punk on the playground. "You ain't [expletive]!" Mayweather screamed at Merchant, among other insults; even more comical was the member of his entourage, sporting some sweet sunglasses inside and at night, telling Merchant, "You heard him!" Um, well, maybe he did – he's 80! Merchant's classic response: "I wish I was 50 years younger. I would have kicked your ass." Though the crowd with whom I watched the circus at Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff's Buckhead house was thoroughly entertained (Dimitroff, ever the scout, had to be pushed into taking a break from college football watching by his agent, Doug Hendrickson), the whole thing was kind of sad. Nice job, Floyd – very professional. And people inside the boxing establishment wonder why their sport is veering ever closer to pro wrestling in the public's eyes?
2. What former Atlanta coach Dan Reeves was drinking when he told Philadelphia Sports Daily that the Falcons had "turned their back on" Vick after he become embroiled in a federal dog-fighting scandal in 2007 that resulted in a 19-month incarceration. Say what? Look, I've been as captivated by Vick's revival as anyone, and I'm thrilled by the way he seems to have made a sincere effort to change his life and behavior for the better. But to suggest that the Falcons somehow betrayed him by releasing him in June of 2009 is asinine, for so many reasons. Among them: The team had already drafted Vick's successor, Matt Ryan, who enjoyed a terrific rookie season that included a surprising playoff berth; Vick admittedly was "lazy" and not nearly as dedicated as he should have been during his time in Atlanta; and, oh yeah, Vick repeatedly lied to his boss, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, for good measure. Is Reeves saying the Falcons should have dropped everything for Vick once he became a free man (though, at the time, it was speculated that he might be suspended for up to another full season by Goodell) and ask him once again to be the franchise quarterback following a two-year layoff? Really? Among other things, what kind of message would that have sent him: No muss, no fuss – don't bother changing? The truth is that getting cut loose and going to Philly was the best thing for Vick and probably a major reason for his amazing bounce back, and things have worked out nicely for the Falcons, too. Dan, please: Let it go.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
The Kansas City Chiefs are in a very dark place, having been outscored 89-10 in two games (including Sunday's 48-3 thrashing by the Lions). They've lost arguably their best defensive and offensive players, safety Eric Berry(notes) and reportedly halfback Jamaal Charles, to season-ending knee injuries, in consecutive weeks. That surprising AFC West title from last season seems like it happened about 100 years ago. So what now? Naturally, coach Todd Haley is feeling his rear end burn (in a figurative sense only, I hope). While Haley on the hot seat will strike most fans as odd – he was a legitimate coach of the year candidate in 2010, his second season in K.C. – people who know what's going on inside the organization are nodding their heads unremarkably. That there is a lot of tension between Haley and his boss, general manager Scott Pioli, is the worst kept secret in NFL circles. The fact that they get along like vegetarians and Gates Barbecue shouldn't be enough to get Haley fired, but the combination of that and a season from hell could certainly do the trick. Haley's deal is up after 2012, so the Chiefs have to do something at the end of the year – extend him, or get rid of him – unless they're fans of the lame-duck thing, which always works sooooo well in the NFL (see: Fox, John, Carolina 2010). At this rate, I'm not loving Haley's chances of survival. We know Pioli's not going to take the fall himself, and unless owner Clark Hunt decides he wants to get rid of both of them (don't hold your breath), Haley likely will be the one to go. That's too bad, for a number of reasons: 1) I think Haley's a very good coach, though he's habitually dissed in the media, a sign (I suspect) that someone in his organization whose name rhymes with cannoli likes to go off the record with certain reporters. 2) That whole "he's a lousy offensive coach without Charlie Weis" is a laughable load of crap. Weis, who left for the University of Florida after a single season as the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, was completely unenthused about the prospect of coaching Matt Cassel(notes). Haley stepped in, took the lead and helped Cassel play at an alarmingly high level that resulted in a stunning Pro Bowl selection. Haley, by the way, was a pretty good offensive coach when he was Ken Whisenhunt's coordinator in Arizona and the Cardinals nearly won the Super Bowl three seasons ago. 3) I believe that if Pioli fires Haley, he'll try to hire his old New England colleague Josh McDaniels, he of the disastrous tenure as Broncos head coach that included dubious personnel moves too numerous to mention, a cheating scandal and five victories in his final 22 games. When McDaniels, currently the Rams' offensive coordinator, becomes K.C.'s next head coach, count on two things: I'll remind you that you heard it here first and you're going to be treated to a real diatribe.
TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"What's even funnier is the sign that was on the plane's entry hatch: 'You're About To Get The Star Treatment … Continental Airlines …' Really?"
– Text Sunday evening from Fujita, still peeved about the previous day's four-hour delay despite the Browns' 27-19 victory over the Colts in Indy.
– Text Sunday night from Bills linebacker Barnett.