Michael Vick’s great magic trick carried the Falcons past the Panthers and into the playoffs

Few players in NFL history have made jaw-dropping plays look as easy as Michael Vick, who dazzled Falcons fans throughout his career with the team. Vick, who was a highlight-reel in human form, made the impossible happen at a regular clip. But there is one particular play that ranks right there near the top.

Falcons rivalry series

On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 18, 2004, Vick channeled Superman to help the Falcons clinch the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. In one play, he provided fans with a memory still talked about as one of the best during that era.

The Falcons ceded a 24-10 lead in the fourth quarter to a Panthers team that had won five straight games and were coming off a Super Bowl appearance the year before. Carolina was not intimidated by the moment. Neither was Vick.

Down to their final play, the Falcons faced fourth-and-goal from the 12-yard line. Vick received the snap out of shotgun, dropped back a couple of steps and sprinted straight up the middle of the defense before diving towards the goal line.

“He dove from like the 35-yard line and hovered all the way into the end zone” former Panthers receiver Steve Smith said. “I remember that game, it just took the wind out of our sails.”

Smith isn’t the only one who remembers that game. But one of the signature moments of Vick’s career was almost wiped away. After initially ruling the play a touchdown, the refs reviewed the play. The ensuing moments in the Georgia Dome were tense and rippling with excitement as the slow-motion replay showed on the jumbotron.

“The first thing I thought about was there’s no way he didn’t drag his knee across the ground there, and I don’t know if they are going to give it to him,” former Falcons receiver Brian Finneran said. “And they go back and they review it, they play it on the big screen. You just watch him levitate and float across the Georgia Dome turf. It was really pretty ridiculous. That play, specifically, is one of his better ones ever. You just shake your head in awe.”

As the replay showed, Vick somehow kept his left knee off of the ground just long enough to get the ball across the goal line. It’s no surprise, then, to hear Smith and Finneran use words like “hovered” and “levitate.” That’s exactly what Vick did.

Vick’s magic trick sent the game into overtime, allowing the Falcons to win on a 38-yard Jay Feely field goal after Aaron Beasley intercepted Jake Delhomme’s pass during the Panthers’ first drive of the extra period.

The game itself was a microcosm of the Vick experience during his time in Atlanta. There was a mixture of good and bad with some exceptional moments sprinkled in.

Vick missed on his first three passes of the game before finally completing his first pass on the final play of the Falcons’ second offensive drive; it was a 3-yard touchdown pass to Finneran. Although he never became the fully formed quarterback people wanted him to be in Atlanta, Vick was never close to mediocre.

He made the plays when they mattered the most. He’d miss his first three passes of the game but throw a perfect lob pass for a touchdown when the situation called for. On the last play of the game, he’d do whatever needed to be done to get into the end zone – often making plays that a handful of players in NFL history could make.

“He was always somebody that made you hold your breath,” Falcons play-by-play announcer Wes Durham said. “When he broke outside of the pocket was when the play really started to go one way or the other. And there were some plays, quite frankly, where it didn’t go well. And there were other plays where it went really well. You kind of had to hold your breath in a good and a bad way, but most of the times it was good.”

The 2004 season was a high point for the Falcons with Vick. Atlanta finished that season with an 11-5 record, clinching the No. 2 seed in the postseason the day after its win against Carolina.

**FILE**Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick (7) runs past Carolina Panthers' Brandon Short (53) during the fourth quarter of the Falcons' 27-10 win in Charlotte, N.C., in this Sunday Oct. 3, 2004 file photo. Vick and the Falcons will face the St. Louis Rams in NFC Divisional playoffs  Saturday in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, file)

Securing the No. 2 seed didn’t come easily for the Falcons. The Panthers entered that Saturday night game with playoff aspirations of their own after numerous injuries to key players threatened to derail their season early.

By the time of that Week 15 class, the Panthers were down to their fifth-string running back, Nick Goings. Goings, however, was coming off of four consecutive 100-yard rushing performances, and the Panthers had found their stride heading into a rivalry that had quickly grown to mean a great deal for those two cities connected by Interstate 85.

We always called it the I-85 Battle,” Smith said. “You’ve always got to go out there and that’s one of those games you got pumped up for, because you knew it was going to be a little bit chippy. This guy’s going to push you a little bit harder after the whistle. And so you get prepared and you know, buckle up your chinstrap and lace up your boots, because it’s going to be a long game.”

A long game is the perfect way to describe that Saturday night in the Georgia Dome. The NFC South clash kicked off at 8:36 p.m. and the Falcons’ game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights just prior to 12:20 a.m. ET.

In between those two moments in time, a classic Falcons-Panthers game unfolded.

“It’s one of the games that, quite frankly, I think both franchises, as we move now into their 22nd or 23rd year of existence, I think is probably one of those games that both franchises point to when they talk about the rivalry,” Durham said.

Carolina was the better team through the air that day, throwing for 314 yards and two touchdowns, but Atlanta, as it often was during Vick’s days, was the far better group on the ground. The Falcons, led by Vick and running back Warrick Dunn, ran for 204 yards and two scores on the ground. Vick also passed for 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns but also tossed two interceptions.

As the four teams prior to them had been unable to do, the Falcons stifled the Panthers’ running game and held Goings to just 61 yards on 24 carries. His longest run of the game was 13 yards.

An excellent day from the Falcons’ defensive line may very well have made the difference in this game. Atlanta got Delhomme on the ground four times but pressured him relentlessly. That pressure helped the Falcons force six fumbles and create four turnovers, mitigating the four turnovers Atlanta lost on offense.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme is sacked by Atlanta Flacons Brady Smith (91) during the first quarter Saturday, Dec. 18, 2004 in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

One of those turnovers for the Falcons’ offense resulted in a 60-yard fumble return from Julius Peppers, the Panthers’ own superstar. That defensive touchdown came in the middle of the Panthers’ 21-point rally in the fourth quarter and deflated the Georgia Dome crowd.

That type of momentum shift wasn’t uncommon during Vick’s time with the team. One of the best momentum players in the game, his inconsistency as a quarterback could sometimes hinder Atlanta’s ability to maintain leads.

In many ways, Vick was at his best when the situation was most dire. That was certainly the case on a Saturday night in December of 2004.

"I was not frustrated after they took the lead,” Vick said after the game. “It just motivated me to go out there and put points on the board to win."

Vick’s on-field legacy with the Falcons won’t be told through stats or box scores. Like the heroes of mythology, the legend of Michael Vick is a collection of spectacular feats passed down by those who witnessed them.

When Vick took flight from the 12-yard line, carrying the ball past the goal line and the Falcons into the No. 2 seed, he created just one more entry in his list of moments you had to see to believe.

“In that game in particular you got the sense of even though you fell behind you could be back in a snap,” Durham said. “And the reason was because he was a complete game-breaker. He was a game-breaker throwing the ball and a game-breaker, certainly, running the ball.”

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