CHARLOTTE, N.C. - No player frustrates the Carolina Panthers quite like Michael Vick does.
No matter how good their defense or what schemes they develop to stop him, nothing ever works.
Vick is a perfect 5-0 in his career starts against Carolina, and the Falcons have lost only once to the Panthers since they drafted him in 2001. But Vick missed that 2003 game with a leg injury.
So as Carolina (8-3) prepares to host Atlanta (7-4) in Sunday's big NFC South showdown, finally finding a way to contain Vick is the only thing on the Panthers' minds.
"He's game-changer," defensive end Mike Rucker said Wednesday. "If that offense is sputtering a little bit, he's got the spark that can change it. We've seen that firsthand."
Indeed they have. In Vick's five starts against Carolina, he's done most of his damage on the ground. Vick has run 40 times for 356 yards - 8.9 yards per carry. He's also passed for 925 yards and four touchdowns.
The Panthers are still smarting from their last meeting, when Vick single-handedly ended Carolina's frantic push to make the playoffs.
Trailing by a touchdown and down to their final play, Vick scrambled for a 12-yard score on fourth-and-goal to send the game into overtime. The play made all the highlight reels, with Vick spotting an opening up the middle, then running for the end zone. He had to dive across the goal line, and the officials reviewed the play to see if he was down before scoring. Replays showed he somehow kept his left knee suspended about an inch above the turf as he stretched out for the end zone.
"It was a great play," Vick said Wednesday. "I think they thought I was going to throw the ball and they didn't account for me and there was nobody up the middle. I was able to get up the middle with enough speed and able to keep my balance.
"It was a big play for us. It was one of the best plays of my career. It came at a great time."
Not everyone is so enamored of that play, though.
"People do that all of the time in football," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "The man dove 2 yards into the end zone and if you all want to call it hovering or flying, then so be it.
"But I've seen that on the top 10 plays on NFL Prime Time every Sunday."
Forgive the Panthers if they're a little weary of all the Vick talk. They realize they've struggled to contain him and they understand doing so now will be critical to the rest of their season.
They currently hold a one-game lead in the NFC South, but play the Falcons twice in their final five games. The division title and playoff seeds could be determined by the outcome of those two meetings.
So as Panther after Panther grew weary of the Vick questions Wednesday, defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac defended his unit, insisting Vick hasn't become a mental problem with his players.
"We've had great games with them and we've put a lot of good hits on him," Trgovac said. "When you watch the tapes, it's not just us that he's making plays on. He makes plays on everybody. It's like last year when he made the great play at the end. We were in good position, but he made a great play.
"Hopefully you make more plays than he does, but he's going to make some plays. You can't stop a guy like that every play. He's too talented."
Carolina could be at a disadvantage Sunday because linebacker Dan Morgan is questionable with an ankle sprain that caused him to miss last week's win at Buffalo. Morgan, the Panthers' leading tackler, is one of their fastest defenders and the likely candidate to stop Vick once out of the pocket.
If Morgan can't play, he'll be replaced by Chris Draft, a free agent addition who spent the past five seasons in Atlanta lining up across from Vick every day at practice.
Draft has never actually tackled Vick; the Falcons have always prohibited the defense from touching him in practice. But he's seen what Vick can do up close and knows the key to stopping him is keeping him in the pocket.
"He does a lot of it with his legs," Draft said. "That's one thing we have to do is make sure he's pinned in a little bit, make him throw. He's got a cannon, but we've got to make him throw."
Not even that is safe anymore. The Falcons have worked on developing Vick into more of a pocket passer this season, and his 57.1 completion percentage is a career high. Vick declined to discuss the improvement Wednesday, saying only "I'm getting better. That's it."
He also doesn't want to discuss past meetings with the Panthers, or Atlanta's streak of three straight victories and 12 wins in the past 14 meetings.
"It doesn't matter - you've got to win the next one," he said. "The past doesn't matter. Nobody is going to talk about the past. You're going to talk about the present and the future, so let's talk about what's to come."
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