ATLANTA — Since Michael Vick came to town, the Atlanta Falcons have mounted a couple of bids for NFC supremacy.
Three seasons ago, they became the first visiting team to win a playoff game at Green Bay's Lambeau Field.
Last season, they won only the third division title in franchise history and made it all the way to the conference championship game.
Both times, the Philadelphia Eagles were standing in the way.
The Falcons get to test themselves again tonight, only this time in their first game of the season instead of the last. They are eager to see if they've made up ground on the defending NFC champions since a 27-10 whipping in Phrigid Philly last January.
"We're ready to beat anybody," Vick vowed. "You just have to be confident in what you are doing."
The Falcons have plenty of confidence coming off an 11-5 season and NFC South championship, but they are going against a team that knows a thing or two about winning. Philadelphia has played for the NFC title four years in a row, finally breaking through last year to reach the Super Bowl.
A close loss to New England kept the Eagles hungry. Now, despite a tumultuous offseason, they are intent on winning it all, ensuring their legacy as one of football's truly great teams. Coming close year after year doesn't count.
"It makes you wonder, makes you think, 'Was there anything I could have done differently through the season or in that game?' " Philadelphia's Jevon Kearse said. "It's going to stick with you until you get it done."
The Eagles are lugging around plenty of baggage, most of it revolving around that flashpoint of a receiver, Terrell Owens. After a feel-good first season in Philadelphia, highlighted by his dramatic return from ankle surgery in the Super Bowl, Owens showed his other side during the offseason.
The Pro Bowler demanded a new contract, even though he was just one year into a seven-year, $49 million deal. The Eagles refused, Owens sulked into training camp and wound up getting banished for a week for arguing with coach Andy Reid.
Owens also got into a high-profile feud with Donovan McNabb, creating the downright bizarre scenario of a star quarterback and his top receiver refusing to speak with each other.
Even so, it didn't seem to create any problems in the one preseason game they played together. Owens caught five passes for 131 yards, including a 64-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage.
"I have never been in that situation," Vick said. "But evidently from what they have been doing in the preseason, they have been able to manage the situation and handle it."
Still recovering from his ankle injury, Owens didn't get to face the Falcons in last year's NFC title game. Now, playing in his adopted hometown of Atlanta, the mercurial receiver finds himself on just the sort of stage that always seems to bring out his best. A national TV audience. A hostile crowd. A desire to prove he's worthy of more money.
"It's a Monday night football game and a rematch of the NFC championship game that he didn't play in," said Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress, another target of the receiver's barbs. "He will be ready to go."
Vick has never had much success against the Eagles.
In his first year as a starter, he guided the Falcons to a stunning wild-card victory at Green Bay, but was stymied the following week at Philadelphia. Vick was intercepted twice and held to 30 yards rushing in a 20-6 loss.
Last season, more of the same. Vick froze over after a blizzard swept across the East Coast, completing a mere 11 of 24 passes for 136 yards with another interception. The Eagles also kept No. 7 hemmed in the pocket, holding him to 26 yards rushing on the frozen turf of the Linc.
Vick looks forward to a much better performance on the speedy turf of the Georgia Dome, where the temperature is always 72 degrees.
"This time, it's going to be in different weather conditions," he said. "I think that will be a plus for us."
If there's one sticking point in Vick's remarkable repertoire, it's the lack of consistency in the dropback passing game. He's still learning the West Coast offense, and the Falcons are woefully undermanned at receiver.
Former No. 1 receiver Peerless Price was released. First-round pick Roddy White (ankle) was sidelined much of the preseason. Vick is left with nondescript group that includes Michael Jenkins, Dez White and Brian Finneran. No wonder tight end Alge Crumpler is the quarterback's favorite target.
As for the Eagles, just making it to the regular season is a relief.
In addition to Owens' antics, Philadelphia released defensive stalwart Corey Simon in a contract dispute and failed to reach agreement on a long-term deal with running back Brian Westbrook, giving the team another disgruntled Pro Bowler.
"You have peaks and valleys," safety Brian Dawkins said. "At the end, after you've handled everything you need to handle in those valleys, you come back up in those peaks. We're at one of the peaks right now."