MIAMI - The Dolphins adhered to the first rule required of any team that plans to beat the Falcons: Knock out Chris Chandler, make playoff reservations.
Michael Vick, though, had other ideas. Engineering an amazing turn of events in the muggy fourth quarter Sunday at Pro Player Stadium, Vick brushed aside Atlanta's gloomy, predictable past and gave a performance that made anyone looking ahead to 2002 feel upbeat.
The final score was clearly a 21-14 defeat, dropping the Falcons to 7-8, making them losers in four of their last five games and ending any playoff hopes that remained.
But if ever the beleaguered Falcons organization could raise the flag of moral victory, this was the day.
"He gave us a chance to win," receiver Shawn Jefferson said of Vick. "He really took control in the huddle and gave us some great direction. That's something you don't always see in a rookie."
An officiating crew led by referee Bernie Kukar ensured Miami of an AFC playoff berth by taking one - and possibly two - touchdowns away from fullback Bob Christian in the second half.
The most egregious call came with 0:53 remaining. Vick, the NFL's No. 1 overall pick, used a 34-yard pass to Terance Mathis, a 13-yard completion to Christian and ran for a 10-yard gain to give the Falcons first-and-goal at the 4.
Christian ran up the middle for one yard and Vick, taking a snap from a shotgun formation, ran right in an attempt to dive into the end zone. Stopped by Miami end Lorenzo Bromell and superstar linebacker Zach Thomas, Vick was one yard short.
"One thing about this team is that we kept fighting and even though we were down we made a statement," said Vick, who completed 11 of 20 passes for 214 yards and ran five times for another 63. "We were able to get ourselves back in the game."
Coach Dan Reeves then called for Christian to run up the middle, and the nine-year veteran appeared to score and draw the Falcons within one. Though replays showed that Christian jammed the ball over the goal-line plane before Thomas and Kenny Mixon knocked him back, Kukar upheld the challenge.
"Zach Thomas came and hit me, but I kind of ducked under him and saw the line and stretched over it," Christian said. "Of course, I didn't leave the ball there for long. I pulled it right back, but I really felt I got it across."
The controversial finish overshadowed a madcap second half that began looking like another Falcon flop. Miami had scored two touchdowns in the final 1:02 of the second quarter to take a 21-7 lead - the second coming courtesy of Vick's lost fumble at the Atlanta 30.
Three plays later, the Falcons got their first indication that some of the officiating crew might be leaning toward the Dolphins. Quarterback Jay Fiedler's pass to Chris Chambers ended as a nine-yard gain to the 2, but the receiver, after getting tripped by cornerback Ray Buchanan, lost the ball as he was falling.
Safety Gerald McBurrows recovered what looked to be a fumble, but Kukar ruled the play dead. On the next play, Fiedler lofted a touchdown pass to Oronde Gadsden that burned Buchanan and gave Miami its final score.
The Falcons and Dolphins played pinball in the second half. Vick was on Atlanta's first possession, but Miami went three-and-out. On the next possession, Vick overcame a seven-yard sack and his own delay of game penalty to connect with Brian Finneran for a 52-yard pass that ended at the 4.
Two plays later, Vick appeared to complete a 1-yard scoring pass to Christian on the left side of the end zone, but the officials ruled he was out of bounds before he had possession. Falcons coach Dan Reeves challenged the play to no avail.
Thomas, who was defending Christian on the would-be touchdown, then stuffed Smith at the line of scrimmage to give the ball back to Miami.
Everything imaginable happened in the fourth quarter.
Atlanta got the ball back three plays after James McKnight caught a 17-yard pass to the Falcons 20 - only to have McBurrows hit him so hard that the ball popped loose.
McKnight was knocked out of the game, and McBurrows recovered the fumble and ran for a 15-yard gain.
Ten plays later, after hitting Christian, Mathis and Tony Martin on three passes that covered 30 yards, Vick went into overdrive. Vick was sacked for a six-yard loss and then pushed the offense back another five with his own false start. His next play nearly ended with Bromell sacking him, but Vick instead scrambled for 23 yards.
He tried to hit Finneran with an 18-yard touchdown pass one play later, but Patrick Surtain picked him off and ran from the 4 to the Atlanta 45. Finneran, though, tore up the field and knocked the ball loose out Surtain's hands.
After left tackle Bob Whitfield recovered the fumble at the Atlanta 46, Vick hit Shawn Jefferson for a 48-yard completion and then connected with fourth-string tight end Derek Rackley, who's employed as the team's long snapper, with a 2-yard touchdown pass.
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