Photo: Jason Braverman
Matt Ryan acknowledges the crowd as he leaves the field following the Falcons' win over the Eagles on Sunday night at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA — Michael Vick and Matt Ryan met at the center of the field for the coin toss, the former Falcons quarterback embracing the guy who took his place.
When it was done, Ryan trotted off the field in triumph, leaving little doubt this is his city now.
Vick wasn't even there to see it. He was back in the locker room, still woozy from a big hit.
Ryan tossed a career-high four touchdown passes, shaking off all the hoopla over Vick coming back to face his old team as Philadelphia's starter, and rallied Atlanta from a 10-point deficit for a 35-31 victory over the Eagles in a Sunday night thriller.
"It was a wild one, for sure, but we hung in there," Ryan said. "I think everybody hung in there and kept making plays, kept battling. Credit to guys on both sides of the ball — we never gave up."
Two of Ryan's TD throws went to ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez, who went past Terrell Owens into the fifth spot on the NFL's career receiving list. Then, Ryan hooked up with Ovie Mughelli on a 1-yard score that brought Atlanta to 31-28 with just under 11 minutes remaining.
The Falcons (1-1) completed the comeback with Michael Turner breaking off a 61-yard run, then powering over from the 3 with 4:48 remaining. Turner finished with 114 yards on 21 carries.
Vick threw for a pair of touchdowns for the Eagles (1-1) but left with what coach Andy Reid later described as a concussion after getting spun by a Falcons rusher into Eagles lineman Todd Herremans. No. 7 staggered to the sideline and Mike Kafka came in for the first game of his two-year career.
Vince Young, normally the backup, was inactive because of a hamstring injury. Now, the Eagles have to worry about Vick's health, though he didn't have to be hospitalized and was cleared to travel with the team back to Philadelphia.
"I know Mike is upset about (not finishing)," Kafka said. "When you're hit like that, you can't do anything about it. It's out of his control."
Kafka did a good job in a tough situation, guiding the Eagles down the field on a potentially winning drive in the closing minutes. But on fourth down from Atlanta's 22, Jeremy Maclin dropped a pass over the middle that would have kept it going.
"I'm better than that," Maclin said. "It was a very catchable ball."
The Falcons ran off all but the last 5 seconds, and Kafka's desperation heave into the end zone was batted down to end the game.
The buildup for the prime-time contest was one of the biggest in years for a regular-season game in Atlanta. The Georgia Dome was packed and loud, many fans wearing Vick's old No. 7 jersey from his Falcons days but plenty more adorned in Ryan's No. 2.
In some ways, it seemed like a head-to-head matchup — even though they were never on the field at the same time. Vick was the one-of-a-kind quarterback who put the Falcons on the NFL map before he was caught running a dogfighting operation, leading to a prison sentence of nearly two years.
Banished by the Falcons, he revitalized his career in Philadelphia and earned another $100 million contract. He had returned to Atlanta once before, as a backup in 2009, but this was different. He's now THE guy for the Eagles, and he wanted to impress in front of his former city.
"I feel for him," Maclin said. "Obviously, he wanted to come home and make a statement."
Instead, he had to settle for mixed results and an early end to his night. Vick fumbled twice and threw an interception, and the Falcons turned two of those mistakes into touchdowns.
Still, he had seemingly done enough when he left the field. Kafka came on and handed off to LeSean McCoy, who scored his second touchdown on a 2-yard run with 1:59 left in the third quarter. McCoy had 95 yards on 18 carries.
But Ryan and the Falcons hung in there, even though the quarterback was sacked four more times after taking five in a 30-12 loss at Chicago to open the season.
"You just keep getting up," Ryan said. "There's a lot of tough guys on this football team and I try and stay in line with those guys and just keep bouncing up. I'm just glad we came away with the win."
There were plenty of big hits, most notably a shot by Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson on an Eagles receiver for the second year in a row. Last year, Robinson knocked out himself and DeSean Jackson with a brutal collision. This time, the defensive back leveled Maclin with a shot that drew a flag for slamming into a defenseless player with a helmet-first shot in the third quarter.
Falcons coach Mike Smith disputed it was illegal hit, saying "that's the way we teach it," but the NFL could dole out a suspension after it reviews the play. Maclin went to the sideline to be checked but wasn't out for long. Robinson insisted he did nothing wrong.
"I saw him catch the ball," the cornerback said. "I saw him run and take steps trying to get upfield and score."
Vick's first fumble, with the Eagles poised for a touchdown that would've given them a 17-7 lead, wasn't really his fault.
Peria Jerry burst through the line and knocked the ball away before Vick could even hand off to McCoy, the ball skidding backward to Falcons defensive end Ray Edwards. He took off the other way, rumbling 64 yards before Jackson hustled back to make the tackle.
The Falcons offense did the rest, capped by Gonzalez's first TD catch of the night — and perhaps one of the best he's ever made. In the back of the end zone, he reached up to snare the ball with his right hand and brought it down to his body just as he dragged a second foot inbounds
"I can't say nothing but 'Wow!'" Smith said. "That's one we'll be seeing for a long time on the highlight films."
On the Eagles' first possession of the second half, Vick threw a pass over the middle that was picked off by Kelvin Hayden. The Falcons turned that into seven more points, as Ryan went to Gonzalez again on a 17-yard TD that gave Atlanta a 21-10 lead.
Back came Vick and the Eagles.
McCoy broke off runs of 23 and 36 yards before Vick went to Maclin for a 36-yard touchdown pass. Then, after Ryan threw his second interception of the night, the Eagles reclaimed the lead, 24-21, with their second score in just over 2 minutes on McCoy's 8-yard run.
Philadelphia extended its lead after a shanked punt by rookie Matt Bosher turned the ball over to the Eagles at the Atlanta 20. Vick was hurt three plays later, but McCoy finished off another touchdown drive.
Vick completed 19 of 28 for 242 yards, also going to Maclin on a 5-yard touchdown. In addition, the quarterback ran six times for 25 yards.
"I thought the guys battled," Reid said. "We just had too many turnovers, too many mistakes."