ATLANTA -- Michael Vick rolled around left end, looking as though he was about to run out of bounds. Then -- suddenly -- he cut back across the width of the field, leaving everyone in his wake.
Forty-three yards later, Vick finally went down.
Welcome back, Michael.
Vick rushed for 141 yards in his first start of the season and Kevin Mathis scored on a 32-yard interception return in overtime, leading the Atlanta Falcons past the Carolina Panthers 20-14 Sunday night.
"It was a blast to be back out there," said Vick, who went down in the preseason with a broken right leg. "It feels like we won the Super Bowl."
Vick's rushing total was the third-highest in NFL history by a quarterback. He, of course, sits atop the list with a 173-yard performance at Minnesota last season.
"It's unbelievable what he can do," said embattled Falcons coach Dan Reeves, whose job prospects got a little brighter with Vick at quarterback.
After Deon Grant picked off Vick's pass at the Carolina 2 to deny the Falcons (3-10) a chance to win in regulation, the Panthers (8-5) got the ball first in overtime.
On third down, Jake Delhomme attempted a pass over the middle. Mathis stepped in front of intended receiver Mushin Muhammad, picked off the ball and headed the other way.
Delhomme attempted to knock Mathis out of bounds at the 1, but Mathis dived into the pylon. After calling off the Falcons' celebration to review the play, referee Bill Carollo ruled Mathis had scored.
The Falcons -- and Vick -- got to celebrate again, having won their first home game of the season and denying Carolina a chance to clinch the NFC South championship.
Most of the night, it was like Vick had never been away. He ran by and jumped over the Panthers, even showing a feisty streak after being sidelined for 3½ months.
Vick completed 16 of 33 passes for 179 yards, but it was his running that stood out. He averaged 10.1 yards on 14 carries, leaving the Panthers nipping at his heels or just flailing at air.
Carolina had a chance to win the second division title in franchise history after New Orleans lost earlier in the day. Instead, the Panthers lost their third in a row.
Carolina had won three overtime games this season, all on the road. But this game belonged to Vick, whose first start created more excitement than the Falcons have generated all season.
Trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter, Vick took matters into his own hands. He rolled left on a quarterback sweep, cut all the way across the field and turned on the speed for a 43-yard run to the Carolina 13.
It was a play that might have worked in a video game or one of those farfetched commercials. Only with Vick, it seems anything is possible.
"When the guy runs around like that, what can you do?" Minter asked. "It looked like the play was dead, and all of a sudden he was on the other side of the field."
Then things turned a little ugly. Vick passed to Justin Griffith, with the ball coming loose after the whistle blew. Vick scooped it up just in case, only to be taken out on a hard hit by 335-pound tackle Kris Jenkins.
Vick hopped off the turf and went after Jenkins, sparking a brief scuffle. Order was restored, and Vick went back to work. On second-and-goal from the 1, he fooled the Panthers with a great play fake, took off around left end and leaped into the end zone with 8:17 remaining.
"Me and him have been going at it since the first game when I didn't play," Vick said, referring to a 23-3 loss at Carolina. "It wasn't dirty. It was just football."
Vick underthrew Crumpler and Grant picked it off at the Carolina 2 with six seconds remaining. That was about the only low point for the quarterback, who missed the first 11 games.
Vick played two series last week in a 17-13 loss to Houston, but this was his coming-out.
During pregame introductions, Vick was last to emerge from the tunnel, thumping his chest as he trotted on the field. The Atlanta fans, who had seen their team lose its first six home games, waved towels and let out their loudest roar in weeks. Keeping with the theme, singer LeAnn Rimes wore a No. 7 jersey while performing the national anthem.
The teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter. T.J. Duckett put the Falcons ahead on a 9-yard run, but the Panthers countered with Delhomme throwing a 16-yard scoring pass to Jermaine Wiggins.
The backup tight end celebrated by placing the ball on the turf, then delivering an elbow smash like he was a professional wrestler.
Stephen Davis put the Panthers ahead for the first time, bulling over from the 1 with 4½ minutes left in the third quarter.
- Delhomme was 13-of-25 for 153 yards.
- The Falcons held Davis to 81 yards on 24 carries.
The Associated Press News Service
Copyright 2003, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved