The Atlanta Falcons have never been the best team in the NFL. They've been good, even great once or twice, but not No. 1.
For a brief period, however, they were more exciting than anyone else.
It was a decade ago now, though it may feel like much longer. Mike Vick was back from his broken leg. Jim Mora Jr. replaced Dan Reeves. Rich McKay built a talented roster, one that included five Pro Bowlers.
We all know how this ended, and we certainly remember what happened in the years that followed, but 2004 remains one of the best campaigns in team history. Let's take a look back at an unforgettable season.
Most dialogues about '04 begin and end with Vick. Controversial even before his legal troubles, the fleet-footed QB seemed to be coming into his own that fall—even though his passing left a lot to be desired.
A mediocre air attack was tolerable, though, because the DVD backfield was so effective. Warrick Dunn, Vick and T.J. Duckett formed a three-headed monster that led Atlanta to the most potent rushing attack in the league—averaging 167 yards per game.
Opponents knew what Vick wanted to do. They spent countless hours watching film. They stacked the box. During practice, they put receivers and running back under center, hoping to prepare for the most mobile QB to ever play in the NFL.
But he was simply too fast, too elusive be contained by most.
Vick earned 902 yards on the ground that year, good for 7.5 per carry. His most memorable moment came on Dec. 18 against Carolina, when he dove into the end zone on fourth and goal from the 12 to tie the game in the final moments of regulation.
It was one of the defining moments in the Vick era. Somehow, he kept his left knee from hitting the turf. Several minutes later, the Jay Feely won the game with a field goal in OT.
Dunn, who compiled 1,400 total yards from scrimmage, scored a career-high nine rushing touchdowns. Duckett, the big, burly RB who handled the tough yards inside the 20's, found the end zone on eight occasions.
Those three, along with a solid offensive line, a quality full back in Justin Griffith, and star tight end Alge Crumper, gave the Falcons an offense to be envied.
The defense wasn't quite as electric, but it often came close.
In '04, Atlanta led the NFL in sacks—a far cry from what we've witnessed of late. Patrick Kerney and his infectious enthusiasm led the way with 13 sacks. Rod Coleman wasn't too far behind, posting 11.5; the aging Brady Smith chipped in six of his own.
Keith Brooking was the leader of the bunch, registering 86 tackles, three interceptions, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
Atlanta's secondary was less-than-ideal—DeAngelo Hall was a rookie; Jason Webster and Kevin Mathis were decent—but its front seven was stellar.
Strong on both sides of the ball, the Falcons won their first four regular season games, and would clinch the NFC South title on Dec. 12 against the Raiders. Had Atlanta not locked up the No. 2 seed in the conference by the following week, they could have easily finished with a 13-3 record.
But the Falcons didn't want to risk Vick's health, so Matt Schaub played most of the next two contests—one in New Orleans, another in Seattle. Atlanta finished with an 11-5 mark and was considered by many a Super Bowl-caliber team.
The playoff victory against the Rams was one of the most rewarding wins this franchise has ever enjoyed. Atlanta racked up almost 400 yards of offense that night, sacked Mark Bulger four times—once for a safety—and caught two interceptions en route to a convincing 47-17 triumph.
Back then, those 47 points were 20 more than the Falcons had ever earned in a postseason contest.
There is so much to remember: Allen Rossum gained 232 total return yards and scored a touchdown. Dunn (142 yards), Vick (119) and Duckett (66) overwhelmed St. Louis' defense. Atlanta's front seven wreaked havoc from beginning to end. The atmosphere in the Dome was as deafening as ever.
No receiver gained more than 22 yards, and yet the Falcons were a field goal away from 50 points. Unreal.
Of course, the road would end shortly thereafter. Jim Mora Jr. and Co. were no match for the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game, and fell 27-10. Vick completed less than half of his passes against Phily, rushed for only 26 yards and was 2-for-11 on third downs.
His adversary—and future teammate—Donovan McNabb led Philly to TDs in their second and third drives of the day. Atlanta never recovered.
It was a great year, but it wasn't the year.
That was OK, though, because '04 felt like the start of something big. A solid foundation was in place, and Atlanta was genuinely excited for the future. It seemed as if the Falcons were finally on track to be a consistent winner.
As we know, that wouldn't happen until this regime fell apart. Mora got canned, Vick got thrown in jail, most of the guys on the '04 roster would be gone by '08. A lot of it was for the best, I suppose.
Still, as poorly as this era concluded, '04 remains a high point for an organization that hasn't had much to celebrate. It was fun while it lasted.