Saturday, September 8, 2007

GAME OF THE WEEK: Falcons can finally play for something with summer's Vick saga over

MINNEAPOLIS -- Finally, the Atlanta Falcons get to have some fun. Their you-can't-make-this-up offseason, marred by the big trouble Michael Vick found himself in for his role in a dogfighting ring, is over. The Falcons are eager for the regular season to begin.

"I don't think we're distracted at all," new coach Bobby Petrino said. "I think we're focused and we're really looking forward to the upcoming game."

They play at Minnesota, where the Vikings -- a franchise familiar with off-field tumult -- enjoyed a quiet winter, spring and summer without major controversy or court appearances. In fact, buzz about the team has dipped to the point that Sunday's game was in danger of not selling out and being blacked out on local television for the first time in 10 years. A blackout was averted when the local FOX affiliate bought the remaining tickets.

Atlanta went 7-9 in 2006 while showing several weaknesses and fighting injuries. Coach Jim Mora was fired and replaced by Petrino, who was all set to shape Vick into a stronger passer with his college-style spread offense. Then, that plan was foiled by the feds.

Minnesota went 6-10 in the first season under coach Brad Childress and did little beyond drafting running back Adrian Peterson to inspire external predictions of great improvement. An offense that set team records for fewest first downs and touchdowns passing is one reason for the declining local interest.

But because of the unending attention Vick's guilty plea and indefinite NFL suspension brought to the Falcons, this game turned into more than a meeting of two teams expected by most observers to be mediocre.

The absence of Vick and the psychological effect, whether negative or positive, on the Falcons makes an intriguing story line -- though it's one that means more on the outside than to the players who actually participate in these contests.

"It really hasn't crossed my mind. I doubt it's really crossed anybody else's mind," Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin said.

In Vick's place is Joey Harrington, the underperforming former third overall draft choice of the Detroit Lions who made a one-year stop in Miami. Harrington never beat Minnesota in four seasons with the Lions, though he threw for 254 yards and one touchdown for the Dolphins in a defense-driven 24-20 victory last year over the Vikings.

He knows his opponent well, which goes both ways. The mystery here is more how Petrino will attack a team that barely missed a modern NFL record for allowing the fewest yards rushing, but didn't generate enough quarterback pressure and tied for the second-worst ranking against the pass.

Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood are a reliable pair returning from the top rushing team in the league, but that figure included 1,039 yards by Vick. With the addition of aging but accomplished receiver Joe Horn in free agency, Petrino's background as a passing-game technician and Minnesota's recent struggles against spread-out formations, Atlanta is bound to start the 2007 season throwing more.

"I expect them to throw us curveballs," Childress said. "I expect them to roll personnels. I expect them to be no-huddle. I expect them to be four wides, five wides, if they get an opportunity."

This is quite an opportunity for Harrington.

He's less mobile than Vick, but, well, so is everybody.

"I am not trying to step in and fill Michael's shoes. I am not trying to be Michael. I am not going to replace Mike," Harrington said.

Though it will be impossible to fully escape the shadow of Vick, the Falcons have been proactive about eliminating that "elephant in the room," as Harrington put it.

"We tried to face it, tried to talk about it, speak about it, really understand what everything was that was going on, and then understand that we needed to move on and do our jobs and prepare and be able to control what we can control," Petrino said, offering a mouthful about his approach. "I think we've shown a lot of leadership in the team, a lot of leadership in the locker room. I think the players have truly tried to put it on the backburner and focus on doing their job and getting ready to play football."

When Steve Spurrier brought his "Fun 'n' Gun" offense from college to the NFL, it fizzled with the Washington Redskins. Atlanta hopes Petrino's transition will be more successful.

"We certainly didn't do any funning and gunning in the preseason," he said. "We were just trying to get the ball in the end zone and get some field goals on the board and try to execute and do things that we could do. My offensive philosophy has always been built around the players, and trying to get them in position where they can make plays."

The Vikings have their own offensive puzzle to put together, with Tarvaris Jackson taking over at quarterback with only two unimpressive starts at the end of his rookie year.

"He's our leader, so we're going to follow him to the end," said running back Chester Taylor.

With another nondescript group of receivers, they're sure to run the ball as much as they can. Taylor set a team record with 303 carries and totaled 1,200 yards rushing. Peterson will certainly play a lot, too, sometimes in the same set.

"I know in my mind how I want to use them," Childress said. "I know how they are in the game plan, what plays we think this guy is going to be in for and what plays we think that guy is going to be in for."

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