|Brian Garfinkel / Associated Press|
|With another rousing victory Sunday, Michael Vick has the Eagles steamrolling toward the playoffs.|
ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons are tied with New England for the best record in the NFL at 12-2. They clinched a playoff berth by defeating Seattle on Sunday. They are on the best three-season stretch in franchise history. They are arguably the best team in the NFL.
Unfortunately for the Falcons, they aren't even the predominant sports story in their home town.
Michael Vick is instead.
With Vick leading Philadelphia to a spectacular comeback victory over the Giants Sunday to all but wrap up the NFC East crown; the stars seem to be aligning for Vick and the Eagles to meet the Falcons, who've all but clinched the No. 1 NFC seed, in the playoffs.
Probably with a Super Bowl berth at stake.
In the Georgia Dome.
Some in Atlanta refer to the Falcons' indoor stadium as the House that Vick built. The Falcons' No. 1 overall draft pick in 2001 made them nationally relevant and locally important. When he was Atlanta's thrill-a-second quarterback from 2001-2006, the franchise's popularity was at its apex, the building was regularly sold out and there was a lengthy season-ticket waiting list.
He and the Falcons also won most of the time.
Others in Atlanta refer to the Falcons' indoor stadium as the House that Vick destroyed. In 2007, when Vick confessed to illegal dogfighting and was sentenced to 23 months in jail, the franchise's popularity bottomed out, people burned his jersey, boycotted the team, cashed out their season tickets and either laughed or cried when Vick entered Leavenworth prison in Kansas. In the first season post-Vick, Joey Harrington ended up as the starting quarterback, and coach Bobby Petrino got so fed up with the insanity that he quit with three games left. The Falcons finished 4-12.
As bad as the franchise's history had been, things were at an indescribable low.
Either way, Vick is part of its history.
His possible role in its future is converging more toward a reality that could once again split allegiances and incite raw emotions, just as Vick did before he re-invented himself with the Eagles -- on and off the field.
Vick has already been back, as a backup in 2009, when he scored and helped the Eagles mop up in a 34-7 victory over the Falcons. This return would be vastly different because of the threat of him dashing the team's Super Bowl hopes or the potential to gain some semblance of revenge for the damage he did to the Falcons.
It would make LeBron's return to Cleveland as mundane as going to get the mail. Seriously.
I live in Atlanta and believe me, there are people who don't speak to each other because of their feelings about Vick. Bringing up his name is as risky as talking politics in opposing company.
Already, people are drawing up sides.
I've talked to dozens of people who said they'll cheer for the Falcons. Some will cheer for the Eagles. Others will cheer for Vick. A good portion of people can't even stand the mention of his name. In Pittsburgh or Chicago or New Orleans, home field is a house united. That would be the case in the Georgia Dome until (if) Vick's Eagles came to town.
What Vick did to those dogs will never be forgiven by many people. What he does on the football field is all a lot of people care about. That he could come back and stick a fork in the Falcons' season is already stirring fear and cheer.
Want proof? Just read the comments after this article is published. No player, not even Terrell Owens or Brett Favre, stirs feelings like Vick. He's hated or loved with little middle ground. Feelings get so intense that the people who support him are often chastised by those who don't -- and vice versa.
|Dave Martin / Associated Press|
|Many Falcons fans still remain loyal to the team's former star quarterback.|
If Vick and the Eagles do happen to meet the Falcons in the playoffs, you can bet the only home-field advantage Atlanta will have will be the familiar locker room and playing conditions. There will be thousands of No. 7 jerseys, both Falcons and Eagles. Sometimes you wonder why people can't just move on. But then you see the impact he has on fans. We saw reaction in Philly last week when he went to a Sixers' game.
He's already captivated one of the most difficult fan bases in the country to sway -- and he's only started 11 games.
Vick wasn't a great ambassador to the Atlanta community like Warrick Dunn was, but he draws far more hero worship, and that's with him flipping home fans the double birdie after a game in which the team was rightfully booed off the field.
What he did on the football field made people overlook what he did off of it, which, admittedly, was not to take his craft as seriously as he needed to and take part in a grisly underworld of violence against animals. Still does.
Although team owner Arthur Blank signed Vick to a $100 million-plus contract to be the face of the franchise, loved Vick as a son -- despite being lied to and losing millions because of Vick's downfall -- he still is blamed by thousands for Vick no longer being with the team. He coddled him. He enabled him. He cut Vick when he was in jail. He sued him for bonus money paid but not earned because Vick was behind bars.
The Falcons have yet to recoup the audience and the money lost when Vick's imprisonment took this team back to square negative one. Even now, with an unprecedented three-year run and a quarterback in Matt Ryan who has led Atlanta to two playoff appearances in three seasons and is a blossoming star, there are empty seats and fans who will never come back because Vick is gone.
Blank didn't deserve what happened, but he learned. He's stepped out of the limelight that he tried to share with Vick. He's far more diligent in vetting his employees and holding them all accountable.
He's enjoying this run this season and soon, he will be rewarding coach Mike Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff with contract extensions that they have more than earned. He'll probably wait until the season is done so it won't be a distraction, but that's coming.
Still, the thought of Vick coming back in a game so huge has to have Blank's stomach in knots. He still has feelings for Vick, good ones, and has expressed his joy that Vick has re-emerged as one of the NFL's best players. With that, Blank is a fighter and he'll welcome any challenge, as will a team that doesn't lose at home but has lost to the Eagles three times in three seasons -- all without Vick as the starting quarterback.
Vick is one of the biggest stories of the year having gone from con to ex-con, to backup quarterback to MVP candidate. His civic service in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley shows maturity and, by all accounts, is sincere. Regardless of how people feel about Vick, there is no denying he is trying his best to be better.
His journey could be one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
His possible return to Atlanta in the playoffs might be one of sports history's greatest journeys.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89.