Vick to make first start of season vs. Carolina

Posted: Thursday, December 04, 2003

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) The Atlanta Falcons are having a miserable season. With a month to go, they already have 10 losses and a playoff pink slip.

Not much to get excited about, right?

Think again.

Michael Vick will make his first start of the season Sunday night against Carolina, pumping a bit of life into this down-and-out franchise.

''It's creating a buzz around town and around the country that a team like us would normally not get,'' receiver Peerless Price said Wednesday.

Vick strolled into the media room with a big grin quite a change from the look he had back in August, when he hobbled into that same room on crutches, his broken right leg wrapped in a cast.

''We're trying to get back on track,'' Vick said. ''It's not how you start, it's how you finish. That's what we're looking forward to right now.''

Vick, who was voted to the Pro Bowl in his first year as a starter, went down in a preseason game with a broken fibula. Initially expected to be out six-to-10 weeks, his recovery dragged on for 3 1/2 months.

He finally got back on the field last week, playing the last two possessions in a 17-13 loss to the Houston Texans. Vick gave a tantalizing glimpse of his unique abilities, though it wasn't enough to prevent the Falcons (2-10) from losing again.

''I'm ready to go,'' Vick said Wednesday. ''My leg feels good. It's about 95 percent.''

Against the Texans, Vick guided the Falcons to a pair of field goals. He went 8-for-11 for 60 yards and, overcoming any fear of re-injuring his leg, ran three times for 16 yards.

On a down note, Vick was called for intentional grounding near the end of the game, a crucial penalty that cost Atlanta a chance to go for the tying touchdown.

''I think I played pretty well for the quarter that I played,'' Vick said. ''I wish we would have scored (a touchdown) on that last drive. But at the same time, I think it was a pretty good performance after being out for three months.''

His passes were crisp and extremely accurate. Even more important, Vick showed that his leg which had been broken just above the ankle could stand up to the punishment of an NFL game.

He took some hits. He got back up.

He knows it will be more of the same this week.

''They're going to be gunning for me,'' Vick said. ''Houston was gunning for me. Every team we play from here on out is going to be gunning for me. I'm used to it. It happened to me last year and I know how to weather the storm, so that's not a concern.''

There won't be any limits on the playbook when Vick faces the Panthers (8-4), who are on the verge of clinching the NFC South championship despite a two-game losing streak.

''In fact, he told me, 'Coach, put them all in,' so we're not limiting ourselves at all,'' Falcons coach Dan Reeves said.

How much of a difference can Vick make?

Well, consider this: The Falcons routed Carolina twice last season by a combined 71-0. The Panthers resembled a high school team trying to stop Vick, who was 35-of-46 for 450 yards and ran 11 times for 111 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown.

''They were great numbers,'' Vick said, smiling. ''I'm going to go back and watch the film. Everything we did last year, we're going to try to do this Sunday.''

Carolina smothered the Vick-less Falcons 23-3 earlier this season. The Panthers are expecting a much tougher test in the rematch.

''Michael will be back,'' Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme said. ''I'm sure Atlanta will be fired up and ready to play.''

Vick adds some much-needed speed and quickness to the backfield, which lost leading rusher Warrick Dunn to a foot injury two weeks ago.

Vick's ability to scramble should also open up things for the passing game, which has averaged only 160.5 yards, 30th in the league.

That's not what Price expected when he signed with the Falcons, coming off a 94-catch, 1,252-yard season in Buffalo. He's far off that pace, managing just 51 receptions for 614 yards with Johnson and Kurt Kittner at quarterback.

''This should mean more opportunities for me personally,'' Price said. ''Michael Vick at 80 or 90 percent is better than a lot of guys at that position. I'm sure he's going to do good.''

If nothing else, Vick has lifted the spirits of his teammates, who couldn't pick up the slack when No. 7 went down. The Falcons went from the playoffs in 2002 to being the first NFC team eliminated from the postseason race in 2003.

''He's exciting to watch, and it's exciting to play with him,'' offensive tackle Todd Weiner said. ''When we see some of the things he can do, our jaws drop too.''

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