Falcons 14, Eagles 10
-- It had been more than seven months since the Philadelphia Eagles wiped out the Atlanta Falcons in last season's NFC championship game. When the teams met again Monday night in their season opener, emotions were especially charged in the Georgia Dome. So much so that a fight broke out 30 minutes before kickoff, and it wasn't even between Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and wide receiver Terrell Owens.
But if Eagles Pro Bowl linebacker Jeremiah Trotter threw the first punch in the teams' highly anticipated rematch, which led to the former Washington Redskins starter being ejected during warmups, then the Falcons' defense delivered the knockout blow in their 14-10 victory.
The Falcons, who have never had consecutive winning seasons in their 38 years of existence, held the Eagles to a field goal in the second half and only 51 rushing yards in the game. The Eagles' comeback hopes ended when defensive tackle Rod Coleman hit McNabb as he threw on fourth and 10 from the Philadelphia 49, causing him to underthrow his pass to Owens down the right sideline with 1 minute 33 seconds to play.
"I thought our whole defense played pretty doggone good," said Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a former Virginia Tech star.
The pregame fight served as an appetizer for the sellout crowd of 70,806. About 30 minutes before kickoff, with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue watching from the press box, a scuffle broke out during warmups and Falcons reserve cornerback Kevin Mathis shoved Trotter in the face mask, and Trotter punched him. Personnel from both teams and game officials tried to break up the melee near the sideline. As players were being separated, Hall ran near midfield and threw a Philadelphia player's helmet across the field.
When order was finally restored, two officials reviewed video of the incident to determine whether Trotter had thrown a punch. Once officials determined that he had, Trotter and Mathis were ejected before the game had even begun. A few minutes later, as the Falcons left warmups for their locker room, they noticed the Eagles gathered at midfield on top of the Falcons' logo. Several Falcons players ran toward the 50-yard line, where they pushed and shoved opposing players for position. Game officials had to break up that skirmish, too, before both teams finally left the turf for their locker rooms.
"I've never seen anything like that," Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking said. "I think it was just the emotion, tension and atmosphere of the dome boiling over."
Losing Trotter was a big blow for the Eagles, who had already lost 2003 Pro Bowl defensive tackle Corey Simon, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts this month. Simon, the team's 2000 first-round draft choice from Florida State, was cut last month after he failed to reach a long-term contract with the Eagles. The team also lost defensive end Derrick Burgess, who left for the Oakland Raiders as a free agent.
With Trotter out, the Falcons tried to attack the middle of the field early in the game. Mike Labinjo, an undrafted free agent from Michigan State who spent the first 14 games of the 2004 season on the Eagles' practice squad, started at middle linebacker in Trotter's absence. Falcons tailback Warrick Dunn ran 21 times for 117 yards, and Atlanta had 200 rushing yards on 40 attempts.
With Dunn loosening the middle of the field, the Falcons tried to open up their passing attack, as quarterback Michael Vick completed 12 of 23 passes for 156 yards with one interception. In the 27-10 NFC championship game, the Eagles contained Vick by funneling him to the middle of the field. But Monday night, Vick was able to get outside and ran 11 times for 68 yards and one touchdown.
"It shows how much we've come since 2004," Vick said. "Playing a great team like Philadelphia on Monday night is why you play this game. We certainly stepped up to the challenge."
The Falcons jumped all over the Eagles early. With about 31/2 minutes left in the first quarter, the Falcons faced second and 11 at the Eagles 25. Vick rolled left, ducked under defensive end N.D. Kalu and linebacker Keith Adams, and fired an 18-yard pass to tight end Alge Crumpler. On the next play, Vick took the snap and ran to his right. With three blockers in front of him, Vick held the football above his head with his right arm at the 10-yard line and ran into the end zone. Todd Peterson's extra point kick gave Atlanta a 7-0 lead with 3:06 left in the first.
The Eagles were forced to punt on their next possession, after Owens dropped a pass that would have gained a first down, and the Falcons took over at their 36. On their second play, Vick threw deep for Michael Jenkins, who beat cornerback Sheldon Brown and safety Brian Dawkins for a 58-yard gain to the 1-yard line. T.J. Duckett ran for a score on the next play, giving the Falcons a 14-0 lead with nine seconds to go in the first quarter.
The Eagles finally got their offense going on their next possession, and they relied heavily on tailback Brian Westbrook to do it. After McNabb completed three passes to Owens to move to the Atlanta 40, Westbrook ran for 17 yards and then gained 24 on a screen pass on second and 20. On first and goal at the 9, Westbrook lined up in the slot and beat Brooking for a touchdown catch to cut the Falcons' lead to 14-7 with 11:21 left in the first half.