ATLANTA (Sept. 12, 2005) -- Less than eight months after facing off in the NFC championship game, the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles couldn't wait to meet again.
That much was apparent in the warmups -- the teams started jawing, a scuffle broke out, punches were thrown and two players were ejected.
Then, they got on with the game.
Michael Vick ran for one touchdown, set up another with a long pass and then turned it over to the defense to preserve Atlanta's 14-10 victory against the Eagles -- a bit of payback for Philadelphia's triumph in the NFC title game last January.
"This goes to show how far we've come since 2004," Vick said. "We were playing a great team like Philly on a Monday night with everybody watching. That's what you play the game for. We certainly stepped up to the challenge."
Clearly, emotions were running high. Jeremiah Trotter of the Eagles and Kevin Mathis of the Falcons were kicked out after a scuffle broke out in pregame warmups, setting an intense tone for the rest of the night.
The Eagles fell behind 14-0 in the first quarter, then shut out Vick the rest of the way. But they couldn't come all the way back, their final bid denied when Donovan McNabb took a vicious hit from Rod Coleman on a fourth-down pass, the ball dropping far short of Terrell Owens streaking down the sideline with 1:33 left.
Vick kneeled a couple of times to run out the clock, giving the Falcons a much-cherished victory against the team that beat them 27-10 for the NFC title and also knocked them out of the playoffs in 2003.
"I think we proved our point," said Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who matched up with T.O. most of the game.
About a half-hour before the opening kickoff, with thousands of fans still making their way into the Georgia Dome and the players going through routine warmups, the teams began jawing at each other near midfield.
Trotter, the Eagles' three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, apparently shoved Mathis, a backup cornerback. Mathis responded with a punch. Then, everyone got into it.
"He threw a punch and I tried to block it," Trotter said. "I got the facemask and they must have thought it was a punch. We were just trash talking. I don't think anyone should have been ejected."
But the officials, after checking replays, decided to throw out both Trotter and Mathis -- a ruling that definitely favored the Falcons. Mathis is a bit player, used mainly in passing situations, while Trotter anchors the middle of the Philadelphia defense.
Second-year player Mike Labinjo, who got in only three games as a rookie, made his first career start in place of Trotter. The Falcons took advantage, rushing for 200 yards.
Warrick Dunn led the way with 113 yards on 20 carries.
"It's unfortunate that happened," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "That's no excuse, absolutely no excuse."
Clearly fired up, Atlanta raced to a two-touchdown lead before the game was 15 minutes old. Vick hooked up with Michael Jenkins and Alge Crumpler on a pair of 18-yard passes, then finished off things with a 7-yard scoring run.
The electrifying quarterback took off around right end, getting so free that he was able to hold the ball aloft at the 5 and leap over the goal line.
The Falcons scored again less than 3 minutes later. Vick lofted a 58-yard pass to Michael Jenkins, who hauled it in just short of the end zone. T.J. Duckett bulled over from the 1 on the next play.
Vick struggled the rest of the way, suffering an interception and losing two fumbles. He completed 12 of 23 passes for 156 yards, but did manage 68 yards rushing.
The Eagles have been Team Turmoil since losing to New England in the Super Bowl. Owens demanded a new contract, sulked when he didn't get it and began taking shots at his teammates and coaches.
Most notably, he feuded with McNabb, the two refusing to even talk with each other during the preseason though it didn't seem to affect their chemistry on the field.
Owens caught seven passes for 112 yards, but the Falcons kept him out of the end zone. But here's a shocker: Owens and McNabb were seen chatting on the sideline during the game.
"I guess that's something positive for you guys to talk about," McNabb told reporters. "We could have been talking about food in the vending machines."
What did Owens think about all this? Who knows? He walked out of the locker room with his hands over his ears, refusing to answer questions.
Through it all, the Eagles showed the heart of a team that has played for the NFC championship the past four years.
After Duckett's TD, McNabb threw two passes to Owens for 30 yards. Brian Westbrook, another disgruntled star, ran for 17 yards and turned a short pass into a 24-yard gain. Finally, Westbrook made a nice catch on a high pass in the flats, beating Keith Brooking to the pylon for a 9-yard touchdown.
But the Eagles hurt themselves with some uncharacteristic plays. Three-time Pro Bowl kicker David Akers missed a pair of 49-yard field goal attempts. He failed on only five attempts all of last season.
Akers did connect on a 44-yarder with 9:20 left in the game.
Then there was McNabb, whose night was marred by an interception and two fumbles -- one an attempted pass in the flat that he inexplicably threw backward in Atlanta territory, allowing the Falcons to recover what was correctly ruled a lateral.
McNabb might have been feeling the effects of a brutal first-quarter hit to the midsection by Chad Lavalais. The quarterback took off his pads and jersey on the sideline, trying to regain his breath, but he didn't miss a down.
McNabb was 24-for-45 for 257 yards, not getting much help from a running game that managed only 51 yards.
The Associated Press News Service
Copyright 2005, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved