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A scrambler's dream

Posted: Monday, January 06, 2003

Saturday night scramble: Michael Vick vs. Donovan McNabb.

Except that McNabb isn't likely to scramble much when Philadelphia hosts the upstart Atlanta Falcons next Saturday night in the highlight game of the second round of the playoffs. McNabb is expected to return to lead the Eagles after missing eight weeks with a broken ankle.

The matchups were set Sunday when Pittsburgh rallied to beat Cleveland 36-33, and the San Francisco came back from 24 points down to beat the New York Giants 39-38 in the second-biggest comeback in playoff history. The Steelers also made the top comebacks list, too, rebounding from a 17-point deficit.

The second round will open next Saturday with Pittsburgh at Tennessee at 4:30 p.m. EST, followed by the Falcons-Eagles game. On Sunday, the 49ers will be at Tampa Bay at 1 p.m., followed by the New York Jets at Oakland at 4:30 p.m.

But the highlight has to be Vick against McNabb, the two quarterbacks who have helped re-define the position. Vick also did what no quarterback has done before -- win in Green Bay as the Falcons upset the Packers 27-7 Saturday night.

''That was the thing we talked about all week -- their winning streak in the playoffs,'' Vick said after he constantly made a lot from nothing in a game the Falcons shockingly dominated. ''One day it had to come to an end. Why not let us be the team to do it?''

The Eagles, who finished 12-4 and lost only once to an NFC team -- the season finale at the Giants -- were installed as early 7 1/2-point favorites for the game. Atlanta (10-6-1) is seeded sixth and last in the NFC.

But a lot depends on McNabb, who broke his ankle Nov. 17. He began working out last week and is expected to play, but how mobile he'll be is another question -- Vick may be the only scrambler in this one.

''It takes a second to get calibrated with the game speed,'' Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress said.

''You can do it in practice and we practice at pretty high speed but still with the bodies flying around, getting up to speed on some of those things will probably be the biggest challenge.''

The Falcons?

''We were playing against history more than anything,'' cornerback Ray Buchanan said. ''We were facing history instead of the Packers.''

It's not history in Philadelphia.

It's the Eagles.

The other matchups:

New York Jets (10-7)

at Oakland (11-5)

The Jets looked like the NFL's best team in their 41-0 demolition of the Colts on Saturday. Or maybe it was the Colts, who looked like the NFL's worst -- worse even than the Bengals.

Both teams are hot. The Raiders won seven of their last eight, including a 26-20 win over the Jets on Dec. 2.

But New York was in that game, which like Sunday's -- and a regular-season and playoff game last season -- will be in Oakland.

''It's unbelievable to think we have to go play them again next year out there, too, it is laughable,'' coach Herman Edwards said.

The Raiders had a week to rest, helping the banged-up secondary get healthy.

But while Vick is electrifying, Chad Pennington's precision is downright Montanalike and the offense is balanced with Curtis Martin and LaMont Jordan running and Laveranues Coles, Wayne Chrebet and Santana Moss catching passes.

San Francisco (12-5)

at Tampa Bay (12-4)

It's hard to see the 49ers getting enough energy and emotion back to test the bruising Bucs defense after all they expended in the crazy comeback against the Giants.

But there's also no sure thing in the NFL this season -- as was proven in three of the four games this weekend.

But as Jeff Garcia demonstrated against the Giants, he can drive any defense crazy by slipping in and out of the pocket, scrambling and finding open receivers late.

Tampa Bay is rested and should have Brad Johnson back at quarterback.

The Bucs will need him, even against the 49ers -- Rob Johnson and Shaun King mean no offense.

They also have something to prove. They've been in the Super Bowl picture the last few seasons but after nearly winning the NFC title game three years ago, were knocked out in Philly the past two seasons.

''The home-field advantage doesn't guarantee anything,'' Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. ''The bye doesn't guarantee anything. But we want to win a championship. To win a championship, the best way to do that is to help yourself in the playoff format. Getting a bye is a great start.''

Particularly against a team coming off an emotional game.

Pittsburgh (11-5-1)

at Tennessee (11-5)

Career backup Kelly Holcomb threw for 429 yards for Cleveland against the Steelers' bruised secondary.

But the Titans don't necessarily depend on Steve McNair's arm -- it's his legs that count. Still, he threw for 257 yards and two TDs in the regular-season meeting, a 31-23 home win by Tennessee on Nov. 17.

That was the game when Tommy Maddox was hurt -- fortunately not as badly as it looked -- after throwing three interceptions. Tennessee led 31-7 at the time before Kordell Stewart came in and made the final score close.

Maddox will be back this week.

What that means is hard to say, but the Titans seem to have a major edge.

Dave Goldgerg is a football reporter for The Associated Press.



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