The time may already be here when it's possible to think of Michael Vick, the Atlanta Falcons' young quarterback, as the finest football player ever born.

In only his ninth start as a pro, Vick, a smooth-throwing lefty, will show the Baltimore Ravens Sunday that he plays the NFL game with unique speed.

His quicksilver mobility made the difference in Week 8, when swiftness afoot, combined with his transience in the pocket, led to the 37-35 upset of the New Orleans Saints.

And eventually, when Atlanta (now 4-3) moves past New Orleans (5-2) and Tampa Bay (5-2) to the top of the NFC South — as soon, maybe, as this year — Vick's arm and speed will do it.

On most plays last week, the Saints could see him, presumably, but couldn't catch him. Not often. And when it was time to throw, he threw straight.

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Vick Tops in a Lot of Phases

OF THE 32 NFL teams, all but eight have already lost three or more games — a stunning statistic for which I see one overriding explanation:

Great athletes, many of them nearly matching Vick in football talent, are all over the place, on most teams, in most positions.

But every athlete plays better on some days than on other days. Barry Bonds can't hit the ball in every at bat. Emmitt Smith can't score on every run.

NFL players all win and lose.

Vick's edge at an even 6 feet and 215 pounds is simply that he does more things with more excellence than any peer. An accomplished passer who performs with the intuition of a good coach, he scrambles punctually, throws accurately on a scramble, and runs with the speed and talent of an all-pro running back.

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Will Reeves Take Full Advantage?

THE NEGATIVE IN Atlanta is that Vick's natural way of playing football isn't really compatible with that of Falcon Coach Dan Reeves, whose conservative instincts tend to inhibit the freewheelers he has hired, from John Elway to Vick. In Reeves' football, you still run to set up the pass.

Thus on first-down plays in the Superdome, relegating Vick to a handoff specialist, Reeves usually asked running back Warrick Dunn to hit the line conventionally regardless of field position.

Vick was born to play another kind of football, pass-first football, even though, after failed runs, he's more effective on second and 10 or third and 9 than most passers. And in the last 2 minutes in New Orleans — with Reeves reduced to no other option — Vick got to play his game on the eight-play field-goal drive that won it.

Starting from his 12-yard line that time with the Saints two points ahead, he advanced the ball with completions or scrambles on every play but one. On that one he spiked it. Then after one last scramble, minor ailments forced him off the field. As the clock ran down while the Falcons milled around with substitute quarterback Doug Johnson, Vick reacted like an experienced coach.

Standing on the sideline, he yelled at Johnson to spike the ball. With 4 seconds left, he did. Then Jay Feely kicked a 47-yard field goal.