- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the NBA, there were the Michael Jordan Rules. The Carolina Panthers believe the NFL has a different set of rules regarding Michael Vick. They believe the league is out to protect him.
"As a defensive player, do I think he's overprotected?" Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "Yes. We are are out there getting cut left and right. But that's what this NFL is all about. The NFL wants touchdowns. They want their exciting players to be successful. They are not going to let you touch him."
Maybe there are Michael Vick Rules, but let's say this right now, against the Panthers, Michael Vick rules. He's 4-0 against them following Sunday's 27-10 domination at Bank of America Stadium. In three quarters, the Panthers had three personal foul penalties against Vick. Emotions became so hot that after Panthers linebacker Brandon Short drew a personal foul penalty for hitting Vick, the emotional quarterback responded with a head butt of his own.
That headbutt drew a Bernie Kukar penalty flag and each player on each side grabbed an opponent in what looked almost to be the beginnings of a hockey fight. Panthers players and fans waited eagerly as Kukar and crew tried to sort out the mess. They hoped for a Vick ejection. Instead, they got more Vick dejection.
Vick bounced back from the feistiness to control the clock and dominate the rest of the game. While the Panthers defense remains one of the best in football, Vick is in their heads. Jerry Richardson may have the ownership of this one-time expansion team by bringing NFL football to Charlotte, but for the time being, Vick owns the Panthers, and now, with a 4-0 start, they may own the NFC South.
"That's just the competitiveness on both sides," Vick said. "There's going to be jabbing and guys out there mouthing. It's just part of the game. It's something that doesn't' happen all of the time I'm pretty sure. They don't have that all the time and it's something I won't get into all the time. I definitely don't invite it. All of that (is) provoked."
The Panthers-Falcons battle is growing into a pretty good rivalry even though it's one-sided in favor of Vick at the moment. While the Panthers defense drives most opponents crazy, Vick tends to do the driving on them.
As expected, Panthers coach John Fox came up with a few new wrinkles to contain Vick. Unlike the Cardinals, who occasionally put five defensive linemen to contain his running, the Panthers cheated linebackers to the line of scrimmage. On one play, they put linebacker Will Witherspoon on the line standing up between the defensive tackle and defensive end. On other plays, they put an outside linebacker along the line as an outside end.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, the strategy played into the hands of what the Falcons wanted to do on their offensive script. Jim Mora's plan was to balance the run and the pass but get the passes off quickly. Once Vick spotted the extra commitment along the line, he had open receivers.
"It opened up for me," tight end Alge Crumpler said. "I caught the ball early because they tried to do a little bit of Arizona, which is putting extra down linemen in. The coaches were showing us the looks that we had. When you stack the box, you've got to throw the football."
Vick spotted the alignments beautifully and went to work. He completed his first seven passes for 118 yards. Four of those passes went to Crumpler for 75 yards and enabled the Falcons to score a touchdown and two field goals in their first three possessions. Warrick Dunn mixed in 74 yards on his first 11 carries, and the Falcons held a 13-7 lead with 14:10 left in the first half.
"It opened up the passing game downfield," Vick said of five- and six-man commitments. "It allowed us to go play action. We were able to hit Crumpler on a couple of passes. We were able to get Peerless Price on a couple of down field passes. We were able to convert some third downs, which we haven't been doing too well."
Mora warned officials before the game this would be intense and physical. Kukar's officiating crew kept responding with flags. The Falcons received 11 penalties for 106 yards. The Panthers had 10 for 91. Before long, neither offense had continuity because the penalties were disrupting the flow of the game. It became a tightly called game, which the Panthers believed worked against them.
"Michael Vick is the face of the NFL right now, so they aren't going to allow something to happen to him," Buckner said. "You know how much he means to the NFL. He sells out stadiums. He sells out jerseys. He's got commercials. Everybody wants to be like Michael Vick. He's the NFL right now. They are going to protect him. He's the quarterback. He's being extra protected."
Of course, this game was getting out of hand anyway. Both quarterbacks knew it was going to be physical. Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking got a roughing the passer on the Panthers' second offensive possession. Backup Panthers defensive tackle Kindal Moorehead got the Panthers' first of three fouls against Vick in the second quarter. It was roughing the passer.
Things got real rough in the third quarter. Panthers defensive end Al Wallace allegedly roughed Vick for a 15-yard penalty four plays into the second half. On the next possession, linebacker Short blitzed and drew a flag for unnecessary roughness. Vick retaliated.
"I was blitzing on the outside, and he had a good play fake and I was on him so quickly that I didn't realize he had handed off," Short said. "He was running to carry out his fake. I was standing there. Either he ran into me or I ran into him. I don't know what happened, but I got the flag."
Within a few seconds, he got a Vick headbutt, and a melee followed. Naturally, the Falcons players rallied around Vick.
"It was intense, and everyone got emotional and everyone really got into it," Dunn said. "Guys were talking a little too much instead of just playing the game. You can then get out of character. That's when you get away from your game."
Within a few plays, Dunn's legs cramped up and he had to give way to backup T.J. Duckett. Vick calmed down and let Duckett and his run wear down the Panthers defense.
Meanwhile, the Panthers offense got out of sync. Jake Delhomme threw a fourth-quarterback interception that Kevin Mathis returned 35 yards for a touchdown. Duckett scored from four yards out in the fourth quarter, and suddenly this game was a blowout.
"I think that the officials did an outstanding job of protecting Michael Vick," Mora said. "I think they really did. I give them credit for that. I love Mike's passion. He gets up and he head butts a linebacker. I would rather that it not happen, but I'm not going to tell him not to. I love the energy, the passion and the emotion as long as it doesn't go any further than that. Mike's a fighter. He's a competitor and a winner. He was probably tired of being hit."
One thing is for sure, the Panthers are tired of Vick. He owns them.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Regardless of whether the league is overly protective of Michael Vick, the quarterback has Carolina's number.