By Ray Glier
Special for USA TODAY
ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons host the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night, and Michael Vick will be back in the house, the same house he left ransacked four years ago.
The game is just a froth that needs to be skimmed to get at all the feverish storylines.
Vick vs. the Falcons, vs. Matt Ryan, vs. Vick's past, vs. could-have-would have-should have.
Callers to local talk radio stammer and are left breathless trying to make their argument. This quarrel among the football family in Atlanta was being settled with the rawness of texting and Twitter, and the open vent of talk radio.
Kent in Cumming: "I hope John Abraham and Ray Edwards knock Michael Vick's head off. Michael Vick turned his back on the fans and (owner) Arthur Blank."
Richard in Fairburn: "Matt Ryan has not made much of a jump since his rookie season. This guy is slightly above average."
Horace in Atlanta: "(Vick) got more criticism than he deserved here. If he had the talent (around him) Matt Ryan has right now, they (Falcons) would have won the Super Bowl."
The NFL cannot wheel enough spotlights into the Georgia Dome. Vick's resurrection brings rapid response, with drama pouring from the spigot.
Once upon a time, Vick was the $130 million quarterback of the Falcons who was going to guide Atlanta to a Super Bowl. Now, he is the $100 million quarterback of the Eagles who is going to guide Philadelphia to a Super Bowl.
His pained road to redemption, which included a 19-month prison sentence for his role in a dogfighting ring that left him nearly penniless, leads here next. People can't wait. Vick, 31, is a new man with the same old spectacular talent of fast feet and strong arm that made him the No.1 pick in the 2001 draft.
Tuesday morning on 790 The Zone, a morning drive-time sports radio show, the hosts blew through one hour of talk time with callers at a brisk pace. The topic was all Vick. One caller suggested Ryan, who is 33-14 as a starter, is a bust at 26 for being 0-2 in postseason games.
Another said the Falcons would be better off with Vick than Ryan, even though Ryan has led 13 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
Callers said they would wear their black-and-red No.7 jerseys into the dome Sunday and root for Vick and the Falcons at the same time. That seems preposterous, except for the fact fans did that two seasons ago when Vick was the backup to Donovan McNabb.
Adoring fans gathered at one end of the Georgia Dome on Dec.6, 2009, to cheer him after Vick finished a 34-7 rout of the Falcons, who played without the injured Ryan.
What will make things even more testy is that the Falcons, pegged as a Super Bowl contender, were waxed by the Chicago Bears 30-12 in their season opener.
"It's a big deal - a big deal," NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes, an offensive lineman for the Falcons from 1986 to '93 and a resident of Atlanta, says of Vick's return. "And it's heightened by the fact that the Falcons didn't play so well last week - (they're at) a level of desperation in some people's minds.
"... There's a faction of fans here who will always be Vick fans - could be 10-20,000 of them (at the dome) on Sunday."
Who dares root for the enemy under these circumstances?
"Can you wear a Vick jersey on Sunday night and still root for the Falcons to win?" asked Chris Dimino, a host with 790 The Zone. "That was the gist of what we heard. Some have said, 'I am a Falcons fan, but I am also a Vick fan and I want him to do well.' There are others who have flat-out said they want Vick to win."
For his part, Vick knows his is the visitor's parking spot.
"It's not my house; that's Matt Ryan's house," he said in a conference call Wednesday.
Yet Vick is not about to surrender any of his fame here. He will look up Sunday and see his No.7 jerseys, probably in the same row as fans wearing Ryan's No.2.
"It's a plus for me and motivation for Ryan to play better," Vick said of the conflicting emotions. "Fans are allowed to like as many quarterbacks as they want. I think it's a good thing for both of us."
Says Ryan, in his fourth year as the Falcons' starter: "Certainly, Mike was a great player down here and did some fantastic things and is going to have support from people in this city. But I really feel like we've had great support the last three years that I've been down here and it's been a lot of fun to play down here."
A friend of the family
The Falcons seem to have bigger things to worry about than the return of Vick. Atlanta played poorly against the Bears, and there was cleaning up to do to prepare for the Eagles, who bashed the injury-riddled St. Louis Rams 31-13.
"We kind of understand what everybody else is thinking at this time, but we can't get wrapped up in that," Ryan said.
Yet, in the Falcons locker room Monday, veteran defensive end John Abraham did not roll his eyes at a Vick question. Abraham just smiled. He appears happy for Vick and seems to be glad to talk about him.
"He went through a lot," Abraham said. "It showed a lot of character. There were a lot of people wishing him bad."
Linebacker Mike Peterson also stood up for Vick.
"I was hoping he would come back. I was rooting for him," Peterson said. "Why wouldn't you be happy for him? Anybody who goes through a situation like that, why couldn't you be happy for them? You do your crime, you do your time, and get past it."
Blank does not reveal any leftover animosity, even for all the money and goodwill that was wasted on Vick. Blank said he will seek out Vick on the field. The owner sounds charitable and at ease with a man who squandered millions while robbing his franchise of its most identifiable player and setting back its Super Bowl aspirations.
"I'm looking forward to seeing him," said Blank, whose son Joshua, now 14, used to play video games with Vick at the Blank home. "People say he has paid his price and say he is entitled to an opportunity, but it is more than that. People can pay a price and not change. I think with Michael he did pay a price in every way and he has changed. People can be redeemed."
The popularity game
When Bob Pressley of BP Sports Collectibles in Marietta, Ga., held a memorabilia show here last February that featured Vick and Ryan, Vick had his supporters and Ryan had his.
The big difference is Vick drew rubberneckers and fans who already had their Vick merchandise. Ryan drew new fans and he signed more memorabilia. Vick is no longer an economic engine in Atlanta.
"You will have to call somebody in Philadelphia to see what's going on there with sales, they could be doing well," Pressley said, "but the Vick people were not buying here. They already have his stuff. From the memorabilia standpoint, it has thinned out with him. There were some screaming girls, but did he do better than Matt Ryan? No. They wanted to come in and see Michael, but not plunk down money."
Ten years ago, Pressley said, Vick was a must-have. You bought him, over and over.
Now, it is not about having Vick's stuff, it's about pulling people off the pile that engulfed him after his conviction.
"It's Michael Vick, people would love it here if he came back for real with the Falcons," said Cedric Nettles, 17, a football player at Jonesboro High School.
Nettles and his brother, Shikael Villaflor, were watching a Braves game at Turner Field on Monday night and said they have no intention of forgetting Vick.
"I still have the jersey," Villaflor said.
Said Nettles: "I have two Mike jerseys, a red one and black one. "Why? He's Michael Vick."
Contributing: Nate Davis