Falcons bounce back after hitting the wall

FLOWERY BRANCH - The Atlanta Falcons got about as low as they could go.

They had not won a game in a month.

They trailed by two touchdowns on the road.

And Michael Vick had just gotten stuffed on fourth down.

''Sometimes, you hit a wall,'' running back Warrick Dunn said Monday. ''It's like an alcoholic or a guy on drugs. You finally hit a wall and say, 'Now it's time to go to rehab.' When we were down 14-0, it was gut-check time. We hit the wall and bounced back.''

With their season on the verge of totally falling apart, the Falcons somehow managed to turn things around Sunday in Washington.

No one knows if it was an aberration - after all, the Redskins are 4-8 - or the start of a stirring run to the playoffs.

But those are issues for another day. After four straight losses, the Falcons (6-6) wanted a little time to savor their 24-14 win over the Redskins when they reported to watch film and get treatment.

''Anytime you get a win after you haven't won in four weeks, the energy is great,'' center Todd McClure said. ''Hopefully it's something we can build off of.''

If this is the start of a winning streak, the Falcons will surely trace their turnaround to a players-only meeting called by veteran safety Lawyer Milloy the night before the game.

Everyone got a chance to vent. Milloy, for instance, urged the players to get more involved on the sideline instead of just finding a spot on the bench between possessions. Also, he said it was distressing to see Vick picking himself off the turf after sacks, instead of getting a helping hand from one of his teammates.

''We heard all the cliches,'' Milloy said. ''I just felt it was time to soul search within the team. It was an open discussion. There were no rookies, no kickers. Everybody was equal. Everyone had a chance. If you had something to say, you could say it.''

Milloy had to wonder if anyone was listening when the Redskins marched to the end zone on their first two possessions and Vick was stopped for no gain on a fourth-and-1 play early in the second quarter.

Washington took over at its own 48 with a chance to blow the game open, but the defense forced a punt and the offense went back to work deep in its own territory. Atlanta drove 73 yards in 11 players while completing only one pass, setting up Morten Andersen's 34-yard field goal.

That set a trend for the rest of the day. Vick threw only 16 passes, completing eight for 122 yards, but the NFL's top running game kept it on the ground 41 times and piled up 256 yards.

''I felt like we got back to what we've done, what we did at the beginning of the year,'' said Warrick Dunn, who rushed for 87 yards. ''As backs, we like it when we can throw the football. But our bread-and-butter is setting it up with the run.''

Vick chipped in with 59 yards on 10 carries, putting him on the cusp of becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. With four games remaining, he has a career-best 929 yards and trails only Bobby Douglass (968) and Randall Cunningham (942).

But, as far-fetched as this may sound, the Falcons might have someone who's just as dangerous. Rookie Jerious Norwood ran for 107 yards on nine carries against the Redskins, including a 69-yard touchdown that showed his dazzling speed as well as the ability to make sudden, inexplicable cuts.

Over the final 10 yards, Norwood actually changed directions twice, which left cornerback Carlos Rogers spinning around like a top.

''He's unbelievable,'' McClure said. ''He doesn't run like anyone I've ever seen. He's got a totally different running style ... the way he cuts, his reads. It's not necessarily in the system, but it works for him because he makes it work. He's not your everyday back.''

Norwood could have a major impact over the final month of the season. Dunn is 31 and admits to being slowed by groin and ankle problems. Also, he's only 180 pounds and could be wearing down after the pounding of a long season.

Then there's Norwood, who missed a game earlier in the season with a sprained knee but has fully recovered. He's only 23, has carried the ball much less than Dunn (77 times, compared with 229 for the starting tailback) and seems to have cleared the physical hurdle that all rookies must face when they go from college to the longer pro schedule.

''Some of the things I don't realize I'm doing until the day after,'' Norwood said, breaking into a smile. ''I have to say, some of them are pretty amazing.''