ATLANTA – Michael Vick's special day wouldn't have been possible without the Eagles' goal line stand at the end of the first half and quarterback Donovan McNabb's precision passing at the start of the second.
It was those two things that helped turn Vick's homecoming into an afternoon of warm embraces from his teammates and some of the crowd of 69,560 at the Georgia Dome.
"I'll never forget this day," Vick said after the Eagles beat down the injury-ravaged Atlanta Falcons, 34-7. "I'll never forget coming back to the city of Atlanta. I'll never forget arriving [Saturday] and seeing a lot of the landmarks that I used to see. I'll never forget shedding a tear on the bus ride over here because I used to take that route every Sunday to come here and play."
The former Falcons quarterback and federal prisoner also will never forget his first rushing and passing touchdowns in an Eagles uniform. After each, he was greeted on the sideline by hugs from McNabb and the rest of his teammates.
"I was happy for him," McNabb said. "He handled the entire situation well. I think everyone was looking for him to come in and do miraculous things, but the most important thing we need to focus on is that he is moving forward. It takes time. Just an opportunity for a second chance trumps everything else."
In many ways, this was Vick's first chance to prove he could contribute to an Eagles victory and this win was huge because it allowed the team to move into a first-place tie with the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC East. Both teams are 8-4 after Dallas lost to the New York Giants yesterday.
The Eagles, thanks to a first-quarter touchdown pass from McNabb to fullback Leonard Weaver and a couple of field goals by David Akers, led 13-0, but were in danger of letting it slip to six points just before halftime.
Two unnecessary roughness penalties gave the Falcons a first-and-goal from the Eagles' 7-yard line, which became a second-and-goal from the 1 when running back Jason Snelling picked up six yards on the next play.
Will Witherspoon and Mike Patterson combined to stop Snelling for no gain on third down and rookie defensive tackle Antonio Dixon stuffed the Falcons' running back for a 1-yard loss on the next play.
Safety Quintin Mikell said the Eagles' defense felt insulted when Falcons coach Mike Smith opted to go for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line when the Atlanta offense was without starting quarterback Matt Ryan and Pro Bowl running back Michael Turner.
"As a defense, we were getting pumped up because to us it was kind of like a slap in the face," Mikell said. "You have your second-string running back and your second-string quarterback and you're going to go for it on fourth down?"
Falcons coach Mike Smith said he felt "it was imperative for us to get seven and not a field goal."
They got neither.
Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter blitzed and created a gap for Witherspoon, who slowed Snelling's momentum as he headed for the goal line. Mikell stepped in and pulled Snelling down at the 1-yard line, allowing the Eagles to go into halftime with a 13-point lead.
"I thought the biggest thing was the defense stopping them late in the second and then our offensive squad coming out and scoring at the top of the third," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.
Starting at their own 20-yard line to open the second half, McNabb completed six of seven passes to four different players on a day when No. 1 receiver DeSean Jackson sat out because of a concussion.
Faced with a third-and-one from the Falcons' 5-yard line, Reid sent in Vick for his third play of the game. During his two first-half trips onto the field, the Georgia Dome crowd offered a mixture of boos and cheers.
They all changed to cheers when Vick took the direct snap and went over right tackle for a 5-yard touchdown, his first in an Eagles uniform. Vick tried to hand the football to a fan in the stands, but was rejected by the net that goes up to prevent the football from going into the stands on extra points.
"I wanted to give the ball to somebody in the crowd," Vick said. "At first I thought about doing the Lambeau leap, but I figured that would be too much. I tried to give the ball to one of the fans in the crowd and as soon as I tried to do that, the net went up. I'm sure you'll see that on NFL Films."
All hope was lost for the Falcons when they tried to go for it on fourth down again late in the third quarter and cornerback Sheldon Brown stepped in front of a Redman pass for his fifth interception of the season. Brown returned the pick 83 yards for a touchdown.
The next time the Eagles' offense took the field, McNabb was sacked for a 5-yard loss on first down. During a timeout with 14:18 left in the game, the crowd started chanting "We want Vick, we want Vick."
"It sent chills down my spine," Vick said.
Reid, being a give-the-people-what-they-want kind of guy, inserted Vick.
Vick threw deep on his first play. It wasn't a particularly good throw, but Reggie Brown made a nice adjustment for a 43-yard catch. Three plays later, Vick sprinted to his left and threw back to his right for a 5-yard touchdown to tight end Brent Celek.
More cheers from the crowd. More hugs on the sideline.
It was Michael Vick's day.
"I think everybody felt it," Reid said. "I think everybody rallied around Mike."