ATLANTA -- Michael Vick watched parts of only two playoff games last year. The soreness in his right ankle -- broken during the preseason -- was gone, but the agony of a lost season was not.
Entering Atlanta's second-round NFC playoff game tonight against the St. Louis Rams, the Falcons quarterback declared that his body, mind and spirit are functioning at full capacity.
New York's success on Saturday against Pittsburgh will depend on the play of Chad Pennington. The same can be said of Atlanta's Michael Vick as the Vikings face the Rams.
He has plenty of reasons to be confident. The Falcons, 5-11 a year ago, won the NFC South in Week 14 this season and finished 11-5. Their overtime victory over Carolina the following week clinched a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the second round.
Vick, 24, credits an offense that led the NFL in rushing and a defense that posted a league-high 48 sacks.
"That's what we've shown all year, man, character," Vick said. "That's what we've got. That's what's going to get us where we want to go."
With other quarterbacks starting for Atlanta the last three years, the Falcons are 2-11. The Falcons with Vick, on the other hand, are 24-13-1 during that period, including 1-1 in the postseason. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2001 from Virginia Tech has led Atlanta to the playoffs in each of his first two full seasons as a starter.
But Vick disputes the notion that the Falcons are a one-man team. He points to first-year coach Jim Mora Jr.'s ability to empower a locker room of leaders. Tight end Alge Crumpler, running back Warrick Dunn, defensive end Patrick Kerney, nose tackle Ed Jasper and linebacker Keith Brooking are all outspoken; Vick is not.
"Mike knows when to turn it [on] and turn it off," Crumpler said. "That's just another thing that makes him what he is -- a superstar player who draws big crowds to stadiums and even more people to watch on TV. He has it all physically but he also has the humility you love in a great teammate."
Dunn and Vick took turns as the team's leading rusher this season, a back-and-forth competition that led to a string of playful insults. Vick took the lead during a 41-28 win on Oct. 31 at Denver, when he became the first player in NFL history to rush for 100 yards and pass for 250 in a single game.
"Unless they decide to put Weasie" -- Vick's nickname for Dunn -- "in for a whole game at quarterback, I don't see him breaking that one," Vick said with grin. "That's okay. Who cares as long as we keep winning?"
Dunn, who stands 5 feet 9 and weighs 180 pounds, didn't reclaim what he said playfully was "rightfully mine" -- the team's rushing lead -- until a 34-31 overtime victory over Carolina four weeks ago. He finished with 134 yards, 66 more than Vick, but the quarterback overshadowed his teammate by scrambling for a 12-yard touchdown on fourth and goal to force overtime.
That play, just another in Vick's growing résumé of amazing highlights, was exceptional because he kept both knees from touching the turf as he dived from the 3 to avoid linebacker Dan Morgan and safety Mike Minter.
"I think a lot of guys overlook what we're doing as a team," Dunn said. "You look at myself, Mike, T.J. [Duckett] -- that's a pretty good 1-2-3 punch. As long as we keep winning, you won't hear anyone around here complaining."
Though Vick's 902 yards rushing comprised the third-best single-season in NFL history for a quarterback, Dunn led the team's ground attack with 1,106 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns. The short-yardage efforts of Duckett were significant, too, as the third-year running back finished third in the league with 4.9 yards per carry average. Opponents stuffed Duckett for lost yardage just one time in 104 attempts, tops in the NFL.