Thursday January 20th, 2005

We apologize for repeating the same mantra that has applied since training camp opened, but Vick's transformation to a West Coast system remains very much a work in progress. And vice versa. The Falcons are clearly trying to get their offensive game plans to fit Vick's unique play-making talents as much as they are asking him to adjust to a more proficient West Coast style of play.

That's how you get results like Sunday's, when Vick threw for 115 yards and rushed for 104 more in Atlanta's ragged 14-10 win at the Giants. For the second game in a row, Vick had more rushes (15) than he did completions (12 in 20 attempts), with a good number of those carries being called runs rather than scrambles. In his past three games, all Falcons wins, Vick's run-to-completion ratio has been in almost perfect balance, with him carrying 36 times for 292 yards, and completing 38 passes for 514 yards.

There were concerns that Atlanta's implementation of the West Coast offense would unwisely restrict half of Vick's game, but that has not proven to be the case. Instead, the Falcons continue to start their offensive equation each week with plays that use Vick's dual-threat skills, then build their version of the West Coast attack around that approach.

So far, it's hard to quibble with Atlanta's results. The Falcons are 8-2, own the NFC's second-best record and have a commanding four-game lead in their division with six games to play. And that's with Vick ranking only 23rd in the league in passing (1,652 yards, 58.0 completion percentage, 83.7 quarterback rating), compared ranking No. 18 among rushers (640 yards on 89 carries, a 7.2-yard average). At this rate, Vick will run for 1,024 yards -- breaking Bobby Douglass' 1972 NFL rushing record for quarterbacks (968) -- and blowing well past his career high of 777 yards rushing in 2002.

But the real test will come in the playoffs, when the competition level gets steeper and Vick has to make opposing defenses respect both his arm and his feet. We'll see how adaptable his multi-faceted game can be when his favorite running lanes are clogged.

If there's a big concern with Vick right now, it's not that he's running too much and passing too little. It's that he's taking entirely too many sacks, especially for someone who is so elusive in the open field. Vick has been sacked 32 times in 10 games, the second-highest total in the league behind the statue-like Kurt Warner (39).

That puts him within one sack of his career high in that department, set in 2002 when he went down 33 times in 15 games. That kind of pounding, combined with the violence Vick subjects his body to when he takes off running, has to make a Falcons fan nervous as Atlanta begins positioning itself for the postseason.

Vick's game still isn't the prettiest, and it's certainly not easy to define, no matter what family tree Atlanta's offense hails from. But he's getting the job done most weeks, and the Falcons keep soaring. For now, that's a combination Atlanta is happy to live with.

The last time these two division rivals both missed the playoffs in the same season was 1999, so Baltimore and Pittsburgh are no strangers to playing big games down the stretch in November and December. But with six weeks remaining and a daunting road schedule, it's going to be difficult for the Ravens (7-3) to close their current two-game division deficit.

Baltimore is playing its best ball of the season, and has its first three-game winning streak since Weeks 12-14 of 2003. But a trip to New England (9-1) this week looms, and that's only a taste of what's to come. The Ravens also still must play at Indianapolis (Week 15) and at Pittsburgh (Week 16). Those three AFC division leaders are a combined 14-1 at home this season, with only a Colts' loss to visiting Jacksonville a month ago marring the slate. All told, the Ravens' six remaining opponents have a 35-25 combined record (.583), and that's with 1-9 Miami weighing things down.

Pittsburgh (9-1) has won eight in a row, and its only loss was at Baltimore in Week 2. But that was the last game that rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't start for the Steelers, just before Tommy Maddox became the NFL's version of Wally Pipp.

Even if you give the Ravens wins in their three remaining home games -- against .500 or below teams in Cincinnati, the Giants and Miami -- Baltimore needs to win at least one and probably two road games to chase down the Steelers. One of those road victories, of course, has to be at Pittsburgh, which would give Baltimore a two-game series sweep and the resulting tie-breaking edge in the division race.

Pittsburgh's schedule, however, could rear up and make the AFC North tighter than we're anticipating. The Steelers' remaining opponents are a modest 32-28 (.533), but Pittsburgh doesn't have too many soft touches left. After the woeful Redskins come to town this week, the Steelers have road trips remaining to Jacksonville, the Giants and Buffalo (which has won four in a row at home), with the Jets and Ravens still to play at Heinz Field.

One factor in Baltimore's favor is that under head coach Brian Billick, the Ravens have been great closers. They're 31-13 in the season's final two months since Billick arrived in 1999. They better keep that trend going this year, or Baltimore's only route into the playoffs will be as a wild card for the third time in five seasons.

The endurance test of a schedule that the NFL always seems to dish out to last season's Super Bowl winners. Check out the highlights of New England's challenging 2004 schedule:

• The Patriots opened at home against talented Indianapolis on a Thursday night in a rematch of last January's AFC title game. New England then played exactly one game over the course of the next 23 days (from Sept. 10 to Oct. 2), thanks to a Week 2 trip to Arizona and a Week 3 bye.

• The Patriots will wind up playing an NFL-high four night games: One on a Thursday against the Colts, one on a Sunday against the visiting Bills, and two on Mondays, both on the road (at Kansas City, last night, and at Miami in Week 15).

• Thanks to Sunday's Ravens at Patriots game being moved into the 4:15 p.m. TV time slot, New England will be playing for the sixth consecutive week in either the late afternoon or night. The last time the Patriots had a 1 p.m. kickoff was Oct. 17, against visiting Seattle.

• The Patriots faced a rough two-game road trip to Pittsburgh and St. Louis within the past month, and in both cases, the Steelers and Rams had the luxury of taking their bye weeks just before facing New England.

• And lastly, New England has to play on the road on a Monday night (at Miami) in Week 15, and then face a short week leading up to a Sunday late-afternoon road game at the Jets -- the game that conceivably could decide the AFC East title.

Suffice to say that if the Patriots (9-1) do manage to win their third Super Bowl title in four seasons, matching the 1992-95 Dallas Cowboys' feat, they're definitely going to earn it.

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