Eagles-Falcons Preview

The Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons will each be missing major offensive weapons for their important NFC tilt Sunday at the Georgia Dome, but that’s not why a little-used backup will be getting the bulk of the pregame attention.

Philadelphia’s Michael Vick makes his initial return to Atlanta after his prison sentence and suspension for dogfighting prematurely ended his time with the Falcons, but neither team can afford to be distracted from a game with major postseason implications.

Vick’s rocky six-year stint with Atlanta ended in infamy before the 2007 season, when the versatile quarterback pleaded guilty to federal felony charges for his role in a dogfighting ring, landing him in prison for nearly two years.

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He was reinstated in time for Week 3 this season, and the Eagles signed the veteran – presumably to add a new dimension to their offense. But Vick has seen little action behind Donovan McNabb, carrying 15 times all season for 65 yards and attempting nine passes, completing three for six yards.

It’s unclear how the fans will respond at his former home, where he led the Falcons to the NFC title game after the 2004 season but mostly failed to live up to expectations after Atlanta selected him first overall in the 2001 draft.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Vick said Wednesday. “I know I still enjoy the city. I’ll never forget the fans. I’ll always be true to them. Who knows? I look forward to going back and being in that stadium. That’s going to be like a dream come true, even though I’m on the opposite side.”

After stumbling following Vick’s departure, the Falcons (6-5) found a new franchise quarterback last season, when Matt Ryan led them back to the postseason and was named the NFL’s top offensive rookie. But Ryan will miss Sunday’s game due to a turf toe injury.

That leaves Chris Redman to start after the veteran backup led the team to a comeback victory last Sunday against Tampa Bay.

After replacing Ryan in the first quarter, Redman was 23 of 41 for 243 yards and two touchdowns, including a game-winning touchdown pass to Roddy White on fourth down in the final minute of the 20-17 win as Atlanta bounced back after dropping four of its previous five.

“Chris has got a lot of confidence in his ability and when he has had an opportunity to play in this league he has played effectively,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “I don’t anticipate there is going to be a significant dropoff in the effectiveness of our offense.”

There may be, however, if star running back Michael Turner cannot play. Turner, who aggravated an ankle sprain that kept him out of a Nov. 22 loss to the New York Giants, missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, raising doubts that he’ll be ready for Sunday.

Starting offensive linemen Harvey Dahl (ankle) and Sam Baker (elbow) also missed practice time this week.

“The team needs me out there. We need everybody out there,” Turner said. “If I can go out there and give it some type of effort, I’ll suit up and go. I have no regrets about that.”

The game is especially vital for Atlanta because the Falcons will meet one of the teams they’re chasing for a wild-card spot in the NFC. With virtually no hope of catching unbeaten New Orleans in the division, Atlanta will have to gain ground on Philadelphia or Green Bay, the teams one game ahead in postseason position.

The Eagles (7-4) have been helped by back-to-back victories, although neither win was comfortable. They needed to erase a fourth-quarter deficit in a 24-20 win at Chicago on Nov. 22, then did the same in a 27-24 home win over Washington last Sunday, with David Akers‘ field goal with 1:48 remaining providing the winning margin.

Running back Brian Westbrook missed both games following his second concussion of the season, and he has been ruled out of this week’s contest. Leading receiver DeSean Jackson was ruled out on Friday after suffering a concussion against Washington.

That could mean a bigger role for players like rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Brent Celek, who has a career-high 601 receiving yards and got a six-year contract extension Tuesday. Celek, though, is nursing a sprained thumb.

“We have some guys that can make plays for us and you just want to give them opportunities to do that,” McNabb said. “Obviously, (Jackson) is a big-time talent and a guy that has just kind of came into his own this year. We just want to spread it around and give guys opportunities to make plays for us.”

Westbrook was an offensive force for Philadelphia in a 27-14 home win over the Falcons last season, running for 167 yards and two touchdowns on Oct. 26, 2008. This time, Atlanta will try to slow down rookie LeSean McCoy, who has filled in for Westbrook with 175 rushing yards over the last two games.

Including two postseason victories, the Eagles have won six of seven against Atlanta, but they lost 14-10 in their most recent visit to the Georgia Dome on Sept. 12, 2005.

Atlanta is 5-0 at home this season and has won eight straight there dating to last year. The team will have a new kicker this week after releasing Jason Elam and replacing him with Matt Bryant.