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Well Under In Atlanta

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Last week, ESPN registered its most-watched telecast ever with Monday Night Football and the exciting, controversial conclusion to the New England Patriots 27-24 victory over the Ravens in Baltimore.

New England’s pursuit of pigskin perfection attracted a cable record 17.5 million viewers on Dec. 3, a total that shoved sister service Disney Channel’s  Aug. 17 premiere of telefilm and tween cynosure High School Musical 2 from the Nielsen record books.

Somehow, I don’t think researchers are going to have to worry about any new record entries tonight, as MNF features the New Orleans Saints visiting the Atlanta Falcons. What’s the under on 17.5 million viewers tonight–5, 6, 7 or even 8 million?

When the NFL schedule came out last spring, this figured to be an intriguing contest. Last season’s NFC runners-up, the Saints, pitted against the unpredictable athleticism of Michael Vick.

Well, the Saints have been perhaps the league’s biggest on-field disappointment. An 0-4 start has resulted in a 5-7 record and New Orleans needing more than a few prayers to even threaten for a playoff position. Moreover, the Heisman hype hasn’t really translated on Sundays (or Mondays for that matter) for Reggie Bush. Now, the USC legend has a knee injury that will keep him out tonight and perhaps for the rest of the 2007 season.

NFL matters in Atlanta went to the mongrels in July. That’s when Vick was indicted for his role in a dog-fighting ring, some three months after he denied his involvement to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. A woeful 3-9, the Falcons, with 171 points to their discredit, are only outscoring the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs on average.

Today, Vick, who got an early start on his term in November, was sentenced to 23 months in a jail by a federal judge in Richmond, Va. Vick’s expected to be in prison until November, 2009, a release date that will have cost him three NFL campaigns.

That says nothing of any further punishment the league, which suspended Vick indefinitely, might levy. Even if Goodell were to let him off for time served, it’s hard to imagine Vick – with his running ability a fantasy league delight, but an on-field liability because of his, at best, inconsistent passing skills — ever donning an NFL uniform again.

Discussion of Vick’s fall is perhaps the only truly compelling reason to tune in tonight’s game. And ESPN could oblige in a big way in the second quarter: Falcons owner and Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank is scheduled to visit Mssrs. Tirico, Kornheiser and Jaworski in the booth then.

Blank was Vick’s benefactor, bestowing a 10-year, $130 million contract on the man who would become the face of his NFL franchise. Blank also treated Vick like a son, pushing the injured QB out on the field in a wheel chair.

Now, the Falcons have been authorized by an arbitrator to recover almost $20 million in signing bonuses from the fallen star and Blank is left to talk about betrayal and loss. It could make for a fascinating interview.

Not sure, we’ll be saying the same about the action on the field.

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