ATLANTA - Quintin Mikell was thinking about the New Orleans Saints yesterday evening, as Mikell rolled his suitcase through discarded plastic bottles and balls of used adhesive tape littering the deserted Atlanta sideline. The Eagles' strong safety was trekking out of the Georgia Dome toward the team bus, following a deeply satisfying 34-7 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, who had been 5-0 at home this season, 12-1 the past two seasons.
No, Mikell wasn't thinking "bring on the Saints," the NFC's dominant team, which pulled off an overtime miracle yesterday against the Redskins to stay unbeaten. Mikell was thinking about Week 2, when the Saints came to Philadelphia, the Eagles without broken-ribbed Donovan McNabb, and New Orleans took full advantage of Kevin Kolb's first NFL start in a 48-22 rout that stands as the Birds' only double-digit loss of the season.
"You take advantage. You take their heart. Whenever a team's down, you've got to go for it," Mikell said after the 8-4 Eagles came within a deflected pass - on the game's final play - of their first shutout since 1996. The now-6-6 Falcons were missing injured quarterback Matt Ryan, rushing leader Michael Turner and starting wideout Michael Jenkins, among others. "It's the same thing the Saints did against us when Donovan was down, they went for it and they took advantage. That's what you've got to do when you want to be a good team, a good defense."
There were some noteworthy subplots. The Eagles were missing their most renowned weapons, wideout DeSean Jackson and running back Brian Westbrook, both sidelined with concussions. They lost left tackle Jason Peters in the second quarter to a "head and shoulder" injury that Peters said was not a concussion. The Birds also brought Michael Vick back home in style, giving the former Falcons star his most extensive playing time of the season. Vick scored his first touchdown since the 2006 season, then threw his first touchdown pass in just as long. Before the game, ESPN reported that Eagles coach Andy Reid's contract extension could be announced this week. The organization issued a statement reiterating that it expects to extend Reid past 2010 "in the near future."
"I think we're starting to believe that we can do this thing, no matter who's in there," said Mikell, who stepped up and tackled running back Jason Snelling on fourth-and-goal from the Eagles' 2 at the end of the first half. "I think that's even bigger than having guys, is believing in the system, believing that we can win any game, and fighting through it. Something special's happening right now, and I'm glad to be a part of it."
As usual, the Eagles are mounting a late-season charge, three wins in a row heading into a date at the Giants next Sunday night. New York bumped off the Cowboys yesterday, putting the Eagles into a tie with Dallas for the NFC East lead at 8-4. (Of course, the Cowboys hold the tiebreaker, having won the lone face-to-face encounter. The Eagles and Cowboys play again in the final game of the season.)
"This is the time that people remember," McNabb said after throwing just 25 passes, completing 14, for 238 yards and a touchdown in three quarters of work. "You never remember September and October. You remember November, December and January. You want to hit the playoffs rolling, if you have that opportunity."
The Eagles seemed to have enough weapons, even without Jackson, and again without Westbrook. The Falcons keyed on LeSean McCoy, who gained just 2 yards on six carries, but fullback Leonard Weaver gained 37 yards on five carries, and 63 more on two receptions - a 4-yarder for a touchdown and a spectacular 59-yarder. Rookie wideout Jeremy Maclin caught four passes for 83 yards.
If there was a turning point, it came on the goal-line stand late in the second quarter, Atlanta down 13-0, taking three cracks with Snelling, a 223-pound back, after getting to second-and-goal from the 1.
"The fourth-down play at the end of the half, I think carried over a little momentum out there in the second half," said Reid, who is now assured of his ninth nonlosing season, at least, in 11 years. Only four teams have won 100 games in a decade with the same head coach, a feat the Birds accomplished yesterday. The other three coaches to do it are Bill Belichick (this decade), Tom Landry (the 1970s) and Don Shula (the '70s).
Reid declined to comment on his contract status other than to repeat how much he enjoys coaching the Eagles.
"Goal line, you only get one shot to make a play," said middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who seemed to jam up the middle on all three inside runs. "I was just trying to blow up in there, take out all the blockers . . . You know what? We bowed up, man. That shows a lot of guts and a lot of heart . . . when they try you like that, what you gonna do? You gonna step up and be a man, or are you going to bow down?"
Mikell said the Falcons' decision to go for it there was "a slap in the face," that the Birds' defense wanted to repay.
"Trot came over the middle. Someone - I don't know who it was - made [Snelling] bubble out to me," Mikell said. "I just went for it and grabbed him and tried to make sure he didn't stretch the ball out, over the goal line."
"That was incredible. That was great," said defensive end Trent Cole, who didn't get a sack but was in backup quarterback Chris Redman's face all afternoon. "I think that set the tone right there."
It's an unofficial rule in the NFL, whenever one team praises another team's backup quarterback to the heavens all week, expect the poor guy to get eviscerated. By Friday, the Eagles had pretty much set up Redman as an undiscovered Tom Brady, so what happened was predictable.
Redman's numbers at the end of the third quarter, when the disgruntled crowd started chanting "We want Vick," were 14-for-32 for 147 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, one of them returned for 83 yards for a touchdown by Sheldon Brown. His passer rating was 31.6.
As backups sometimes do, Redman looked uncomfortable against the pass rush and seemed to seek out only two receivers, wideout Roddy White (targeted 20 times, nine catches) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (13 targets, eight completions). Redman had led the Falcons over the Bucs a week earlier, after Ryan went down early with a toe injury, but his offensive line was healthier then.
"It was tough to get into the groove out there," Redman said. "You have to give the Eagles a lot of credit, because they kept us off-balance."
Falcons fans couldn't help but draw an unfavorable contrast between the guy quarterbacking their team yesterday and the guy who was under center for them from 2001-06. It was by far the most success Vick has experienced in an Eagles uniform; the crowd started off booing him vehemently, but as the gap widened and Vick continued to perform well, the mood toward him changed, perhaps as a way of attempting to tweak the home team, which has now lost five of its last seven.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank chatted amiably on the field with Vick during warmups. Blank might not have been so cordial if he'd known the Vick-tinged embarrassment that lay ahead.
The chant began on the first possession of the fourth quarter, set up by an interception by Atlanta's own Sean Jones, one of four former Georgia Bulldogs playing for the Eagles, all of whom all saw significant action.
Reid seemed to be listening to the chant from the half-filled dome; sure enough, Vick trotted out to the huddle right away, to ragged cheers. (The fact that McNabb had just been grabbed by the neck and sacked might also have influenced Reid, who said afterward the chant "didn't hurt.") Vick immediately connected on a 43-yard bomb to one of those ex-Bulldogs, the long-neglected Reggie Brown. It was Brown's longest catch since 2007, when he was a starter. Vick put the cherry on top of the sundae by drifting left on third-and-goal from the Falcons' 5, then whirling and lofting a balloon the other way to Brent Celek for the TD that made it 34-0 with 12:31 left.
"It was great," Vick said, when asked about the chanting. He spent 18 months in federal prison for his role in a dogfighting operation, going quickly from Atlanta's most loved athlete to its most reviled. "It sent chills down my spine and it made me know that people here still appreciate what I have done and what I will be able to do moving forward . . . I will never forget this game. I will never forget coming back to the city of Atlanta."
The afternoon's only glitch for the Eagles was the injury Peters suffered in the second quarter. This meant more shuffling for an offensive line that was just starting to find cohesiveness. Todd Herremans moved from left guard to left tackle, Nick Cole from right guard to left guard, and Max Jean-Gilles replaced Cole. Jean-Gilles cost the Birds a Jason Avant touchdown catch when he was flagged for hands to the face.
Reid seemed to tiptoe around the "c" word after the game, but Peters told reporters he absolutely did not suffer a concussion.
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.