ATLANTA — With quarterback Michael Vick knocked out of the game for good near the end of the third quarter, Sunday night's nationally televised epic clash turned into the ultimate test for the Eagles defense, running game and third-team quarterback Mike Kafka.
Matt Ryan tossed four touchdown passes for the first time in his career as the Atlanta Falcons came back in a wild, see-saw, shoot-'em-up game to hand the Eagles a 35-31 defeat at the Georgia Dome.
The only thing missing in a contest where defense was just a myth was Clint Eastwood and his Smith and Wesson.
In the end, the teams had combined for nearly 800 yards of offense.
The Eagles had seemed to take control of the game before Vick was felled by a neck injury in which his head bounced awkwardly off teammate Todd Herremans after being tackled as he released a pass. He did not return.
Vick was 19 of 28 for 242 yards and two touchdown passes before his injury.
Kafka then was summoned because backup Vince Young is still out with a hamstring injury suffered in the final preseason game. Although the Eagles scored a touchdown on that drive to go up by 10 points, they were unable to hold off the Falcons, who went ahead for good when running back Michael Turner scored on a 3-yard run with just under five minutes to go.
That touchdown capped a furious exchange of second-half scoring that enabled the Falcons to avoid an 0-2 start and prevented the Eagles from going 2-0 for only the second time in coach Andy Reid's career. The first time, in 2004, they wound up advancing to the Super Bowl.
This loss will be remembered as one the Eagles should have won three times over, even without Vick and Young.
Instead, they paid a huge price for a series of red-zone misplays in the first half that kept the game from getting out of hand late.
The Eagles finished with a 447 to 318 advantage in total yards. But they were unable to overcome three turnovers and ghastly, unacceptable play inside the 20-yard line.
What's more, the Falcons now own the tiebreaker should these Super Bowl contenders be forced to meet again in January.
Like the week before, the Eagles were gashed early by a strong inside running attack as Turner (21 carries, 114 yards) ripped off gains of nine and 14 yards to open the game.
If not for the officials missing a clear helmet-to-helmet hit by defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins on a third-down sack, the Falcons might have jumped ahead on that first series.
As it was, they converted the second time they had it, following a poor punt by rookie Chas Henry that set up a big return by Eric Weems to the Eagles' 38-yard line.
From there, the Falcons called Turner's number again — four times in seven plays, to be precise — and punched it in when Ryan hit Roddy White with a 2-yard pass in the back of the end zone.
The Eagles battled back to take the lead, however.
First, they went 84 yards on 12 plays to tie it when Vick hit Jeremy Maclin with a 5-yard TD pass. Maclin made a one-handed grab of a ball thrown behind him. The play came immediately after DeSean Jackson dropped a more precise pass in the end zone, but Jackson had an impact on the touchdown by drawing double coverage on the other side, enabling Maclin to sneak free in the right flat.
The series began with a 20-yard reception by Maclin and was highlighted by an old-school, trap-block counter that Ronnie Brown carried 11 yards, 10-yard passes to Jackson and LeSean McCoy and finally an offsides call against defensive end John Abraham that turned a third-down stop into a first-and-goal at the 4.
A 29-yard pass from Vick to Jason Avant on third down helped the Eagles to their first lead. Though they were held without another first down, they called on Alex Henery to kick a 22-yard field goal.
But just when it looked like the Eagles were about to seize control, one misplay inside the Atlanta 5 gave the momentum right back to the Falcons.
Peria Jerry penetrated on a running play to jar the ball loose from Vick, and Ray Edwards picked it up and nearly returned it for a touchdown until being dragged down from behind by Jackson. Still, the Falcons were able to turn that possession into a touchdown and a 14-10 lead.
Then they threatened to make it a runaway when they intercepted Vick on the first series of the second half and were in the end zone two plays later.
All that served to do was wake up the Eagles, who responded with three straight third-quarter touchdowns before the Falcons started their comeback.
Vick gets hurt and Eagles can't hold on, lose to Falcons
Eagles, minus the injured Michael Vick, fail to protect 10-point lead in second half as Falcons storm back.
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