Falcons’ greatest moment, No. 8: Playoff win in the ‘Frozen Tundra’

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Packers quarterback Brett Favre sits dejected in the snow as Falcons defensive ends Brady Smith (center) and Patrick Kerney come up with his fumble celebrating during 4th quarter. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
When the Falcons traveled to Lambeau Field for the NFC Wild Card game on Jan. 4, 2003, the Packers had not lost a home playoff game since in 1933. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When the Falcons traveled to Lambeau Field for the NFC Wild Card game on Jan. 4, 2003, the Packers had not lost a home playoff game since in 1933. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 8 takes us to a cold January day in 2003 as the Michael Vick and the Falcons stun the Packers and become the first NFL team to leave Lambeau Field with a playoff victory.

Date: Jan. 4, 2003

Against the Odds: Every professional league has its own dynasties and the veracity of home field advantage is universally known in all sports. In 2003, the Falcons faced a challenge that every sports fan knew heading into kickoff. Atlanta (9-6-1) lost three of four games in December and had backed its way into the playoffs as they flew north to take on the 12-4 Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the wild card round. The Packers were the only team to go 8-0 at home that season and they had not lost a home playoff game since the NFL instituted postseason play in 1933. The closest the Packers had come to losing, however, was on New Year’s Eve 1967, when Bart Starr found the end zone with 13 seconds left to give Green Bay a 21-17 victory over Dallas in the coldest game in NFL history. Falcons head coach Dan Reeves quarterbacked the Cowboys in what is now known as “The Ice Bowl” and threw the 50-yard touchdown pass that gave Dallas a 17-14 lead before Starr’s game winner. It had been more than 35 years since Reeves and the Cowboys fell just short to the Packers, but he returned with a young Falcons squad, spearheaded by a confident 22-year-old quarterback by the name Michael Vick. The timely playmaking ability and fast start sparked by Vick, led to a shocking 27-7 upset of the Packers before a record crowd of 65,358 stunned fans. It was Atlanta’s first playoff victory since 1998’s NFC Championship Game at Minnesota. Former Falcon and Packers legend Brett Favre had built a reputation as the game’s greatest cold-weather quarterback, winning all 35 of his starts at home in which the temperature was 34 degrees or colder prior to the defeat.

Keys to Vick-tory: Atlanta did not reach the end zone on an opening drive once in the regular season but got the fast start it needed. Vick found Shawn Jefferson on a 10-yard touchdown pass that capped off a 76-yard, 10-play opening drive. The Falcons piled on an insurmountable 24-0 halftime lead.

Ground and Pound: The Falcons were able to win the matchup by using their unique running game. The scrambling ability of Vick helped open up running lanes for the powerful T.J. Duckett. While holding the Packers to just 56 yards rushing, the Falcons offense ran the ball a season-high 44 times for 192 hard-earned yards.

Packers quarterback Brett Favre sits dejected in the snow as Falcons defensive ends Brady Smith (center) and Patrick Kerney come up with his fumble celebrating during 4th quarter. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Packers quarterback Brett Favre sits dejected in the snow as Falcons defensive ends Brady Smith (center) and Patrick Kerney come up with his fumble celebrating during 4th quarter. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

Packers coach Mike Sherman on the game: “Michael Vick’s a great player, he made some great plays, we couldn’t tackle him. But their whole team played well. It wasn’t just Michael Vick.”

Dan Reeves on his team making history: “Thirty-five years ago and they’re still showing that ‘game’. And all I did was complete one little old pass. To be the first team to win a game up here, they’ll be showing this for a long time.”

What the AJC wrote: Somewhere along the way to the Falcons knocking the green and the gold right out of the Green Bay Packers, the cow jumped over the moon.

That was right after elephants flew, fish began to bark and Lambeau Field became a 67,000-seat morgue.

The Falcons won Saturday night. They dominated. They drop-kicked the Packers’ legacy from here to next season. They sprinted to a 24-0 lead before Vince Lombardi and the rest of those Green Bay ghosts could arrive from the past.

As for the present, it belongs to the Falcons and their extraordinary quarterback. Despite operating with two damaged shoulders, a bad thumb on his throwing hand and leg cramps, Mike Vick willed his team to excellence. He also helped their cause with the accuracy of his left arm and the elusiveness of his legs.

The Packers still haven’t tackled Vick. They barely touched him. He rebounded from a five-game slump to resemble the other guy.

No, Vick was better than Brett Favre, the Packers’ master of dramatics. While the other guy has done these things for years, Vick is just in his first full season as a starter.

That’s why Vick expressed his admiration for Favre and his ability to continue the Packers’ mystique. But, “It’s like the weather in Green Bay, “Vick said earlier in the week. “If you allow all of that stuff to affect you, it will.”

It didn’t affect the Falcons, the first visiting team to do a lot of things around here. Nothing is bigger than this: The Packers had never lost a home playoff game in the state of Wisconsin, and they’ve been blocking and tackling since 1919.

The anatomy of a Falcons miracle began with a slew of a little things.

Winning the opening coin toss. A tipped pass from Vick that dropped into the hands of his receiver to continue a scoring drive. The ball slipping out of Favre’s Hall of Fame fingers on the Packers’ first offensive play.

Well, and one big thing.

No Frozen Tundra.

With virtually no wind and no snow deep into the first half around this land of ice fishing and instant blizzards, the Falcons kept finding ways to shock reality.

During the regular season, the Falcons never scored a touchdown on their opening drive. They did against the Packers when Vick zipped a laser to Shawn Jefferson in the end zone.

Less than three minutes later, the Falcons blocked a punt and recovered the ball in the end zone. It was 14-0 along the way to 21-0 after T.J. Duckett became a bulldozer. With the crowd interrupting its booing for some gasping, Duckett dragged half of Brown County across the goal line.

Falcons punter Chris Mohr and the referee signal the ball is the Falcons' as the Packers fumble a kickoff return setting up the Falcons' third touchdown in the first half. (Curtis Compton / AJC)

Falcons punter Chris Mohr and the referee signal the ball is the Falcons’ as a fumble set up the Falcons’ third touchdown in the first half. (Curtis Compton / AJC)

These are the Packers, though, with that other guy and that tradition. Plus, when both teams left their locker rooms to meet the second-half kickoff, Packer Weather returned. The wind blew, and the snow came, and the crowd roared.

Just like that, the Packers raced 73 yards in a flash for a touchdown.

It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered for the suddenly vibrant Falcons. Maybe you recall that they’ve been here and done this before. Like four years ago, when the Dirty Birds kept using a slew of a little things to fly to the Super Bowl.

Remember, too, that we’re in the wackiest NFL season ever. If the Falcons can destroy the Packers inside of Green Bay’s usual house of horrors, it’s time to check ticket prices for San Diego.

Catch a new Top 10 play in Falcons history every week through the end of the season.

No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road
No. 9: Claude Humphrey gets call to Canton


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