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Stars of future behind schedule

Return of Vick not only No. 1 concern

The schedule-makers were really onto something. In the height of a playoff push, how about a showdown of two rising teams led by the future of the NFL? The only thing higher than expectations in Atlanta were the potential TV ratings. You couldn't come within city lines of Houston without hearing about those ever-improving Texans and the hope of becoming the first team to host a Super Bowl. But forgotten was the No. 1 rule of scheduling: Don't always bet on No. 1. The draft pick, that is.

The theory is a gold mine in the NBA, where millions tune in nightly for their LeBron fix. There are no such guarantees on the gridiron. In July, Michael Vick was hotter than HDTV. Yesterday in Houston, the top pick in 2001 took his first snaps of the regular season after breaking his leg in the preseason. David Carr was supposed to have the Texans rivaling the Cowboys for state supremacy. Yesterday in Houston, the top pick in 2002 was summoned from the bench with a sprained throwing shoulder to bail out Dom Capers' offense.

There really was no winner in all this, although the 5-7 Texans can take solace in their 17-13 victory. The league could use all the positive PR it can get in light of the current steroid allegations, and all it got yesterday was another example in franchise fragility. Neither quarterback (especially Vick, who turned his right ankle almost two weeks ago) expected to handle much more than a clipboard in a game virtually devoid of postseason implications, yet both were forced into action.

When you're staring down 2-10 like Falcons coach Dan Reeves, every decision smacks of desperation -- such as inserting Vick late in the third quarter with Doug Johnson running the offense sideways. The future franchise savior guided his team to two field goals, but was as rusty as an AMC Rambler in completing 8 of 11 simplified passes for 60 yards and scrambling for 16 yards on three runs. The most promising moment likely came on the final play of the quarter, when Vick popped right up after a Jamie Sharper sack.

"It felt good to take a couple of hits today," said Vick. "It puts me back on track and lets me know that my body's still able to absorb those hits. It gives me some confidence going into next week and for the rest of the year."

"He looked good, really good, especially considering how long he's been out," receiver Peerless Price said. "He's pure excitement."

Even in hostile territory. You think the Texans' defense cowered when the Reliant Stadium crowd oohed as No. 7 trotted into the Atlanta huddle? Hardly.

"Everybody knew he was coming in," said Houston cornerback Marcus Coleman said. "Then all of a sudden, the crowd got real excited. We knew we had to turn it up and we did."

Quite a momentum swing from the tail end of the first half, when Houston's starting quarterback, Tony Banks, had his season ended with a broken right hand. Playing in obvious pain, Carr directed a 63-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter, and even churned out 36 yards himself on a gutty, Vick-esque scramble. So now what? Vick's back, albeit on a dreadful team wracked with injuries. Carr's back, but really in no condition to play. The top pick in 1999, Cleveland quarterback Tim Couch, sprained his left knee yesterday in a loss at Seattle. This year's diva of the draft, Cincinnati's Carson Palmer, has yet to take an NFL snap while adding zeroes to his bank account. Frankly, never has the cry "We're No. 1" meant so little.

Deep purple

The Vikings are in officially in full swoon. A 6-0 start has given way to a 1-5 stretch and coach Mike Tice is feeling a little delusional.

"We're in first place, so, yeah, we feel like a first-place team," Tice said. However the NFC North is hardly a gauntlet. The Rams have proven that with wins over Green Bay, Chicago, and now Minnesota (48-17). The Vikings won the yardage battle, 465-396, but also had many more lowlights, including a Daunte Culpepper fumble on fourth down that Aeneas Williams brought back 90 yards for a backbreaking score. Tice earlier eschewed 3 points with a chance to tie the game at 20, faking a 42-yard attempt.

"I didn't think we could beat this team kicking a whole lot of field goals," he reasoned. The decision certainly backfired as St. Louis responded with 21 points in the next 10 minutes. "We're a young team that needs to grow up," added Tice. "In this league, you just have to make enough plays to win."

Calling the right plays certainly helps.

Brothers in arms

There were a few local ties to a semi-historic event when former Xaverian and Boston College signal-callers Matt and Tim Hasselbeck became the second set of brothers to start an NFL game on the same day. While Matt Hasselbeck (328 yards, 3 TDs) has the 8-4 Seahawks thinking big, Tim Hasselbeck (231 yards, INT) could be staking his claim as the Redskins' backup QB. He was ruing a late overthrow of Laveranues Coles that cost Washington a crucial first down. "That's the play I want back," he said. "I didn't give him a chance to put his hands on the football. To put it out of bounds the way I did, it really gives us no chance." Current Patriots backup Damon Huard, along with brother Brock, were the first siblings to start on the same day, in 2000.

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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