We’re in the dead period of football (you can read about how much I hate this period here), and with it, we don’t have much to talk about except for some speculation here and there.
I figured this would be a good time to look back on some moments in Falcons history and maybe relive them while we wait for football to come back.
That idea has given rise to a new series of “Throwback Thursday” articles I’m planning on writing throughout the dead period. Each week, we’ll relive and discuss a certain moment in this franchise’s 52-year history.
You can find last week’s Throwback Thursday article, about Dan Quinn, here.
The 1998 Atlanta Falcons caught lightning in a bottle. Dan Reeves led a Falcons squad which had been mired in mediocrity in the 1990s, though that mediocrity was a serious upgrade over the awful performances of most of the 1980s.
The birds made it to the playoffs in the 1991 and 1995 seasons, registering a playoff win in ‘91. Following that ‘95 playoff berth, and a subsequent 37-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta went a combined 10-22 in 1996 and 1997.
The team went into the 1998 season, the second year under Reeves, with hopes of getting back to the playoffs, though a division title seemed out of reach with the juggernaut San Francisco 49ers continuing to tower over the NFC West. The Niners had won the West five times in the previous six seasons, and 13 times since 1981 (in 17 years). The Falcons didn’t have a division title to their name since that 1980 season.
Business as usual turns into anything but
It looked to be business as usual in terms of San Francisco owning the division in the early stages of the 1998 campaign, when they beat the Falcons by a 31-20 score in week 3 to improve to 3-0.
The Falcons, who employed a veteran group led by quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Jamal Anderson, weren’t willing to kowtow to the supremacy of the 49ers, however. Following a week 5 loss to the New York Jets, which dropped their record to 5-2, the birds went on a nine-game winning streak throughout the rest of the regular season, bringing their record to a franchise-best 14-2. Head Coach Dan Reeves wasn’t with the team for the last two regular season games because of heart surgery, but he would rejoin his Falcons in the playoffs.
QB Chris Chandler earned Pro Bowl honors, throwing to 3154 yards and accounting for a TD/INT ratio of 25/12. The Falcons had a 13-1 record in games started by Chandler, and were 1-1 when he was unavailable.
RB Jamal Anderson was both a Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro selection with his 2165 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns. He was the engine that kept this Falcons team churning, and his “dirty bird” touchdown dance still lives on in Atlanta Falcon folklore.
WRs Terrance Mathis and Tony Martin each accounted for over 1100 receiving yards and a combined 17 receiving touchdowns.
The defense was maybe even more impressive, wreaking havoc on opposing offensive units week in and week out. The starting defensive line accounted for 12 of the team’s league-high 25 forced fumbles, paced by DE Lester Archambeau, who had five FF along with a team-high 10.0 sacks. Chuck Smith accounted for 8.5 of his own sacks along with three forced fumbles.
The secondary came away with 18 of the team’s 19 interceptions. They were led by CB Ray Buchanan with seven and FS Eugene Robinson who had four. Both were Pro Bowl selections on the defensive side of the ball along with LB Jessie Tuggle.
Atlanta had both the fourth-highest scoring offense and fourth best scoring defense in the NFL over the course of the regular season in 1998. The defense also led the league with 44 takeaways, and the team’s 33:10 minutes of position per game was good for first in the NFL.
In literally any other year, Atlanta’s 14-2 record would have been good enough to earn them the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but that wasn’t the case in ‘98. That honor went to the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings, a team so talented that that one loss was more surprising to see than those 15 wins.
The Falcons did have a bye week in the first round, and they hosted and squeaked by the rival 49ers, in the two teams’ third meeting of the season, 20-18. That would set the stage for an NFC Championship game matchup against the Vikings.
Minnesota was the heavy favorite to not only rout the Falcons (they were an 11-point favorite according to the Las Vegas line) but also to easily handle whoever they met in the Super Bowl when they inevitably made it there.
Their offense averaged 34.8 points per game, the most in NFL history at that point in time. QB Randall Cunningham was a First-Team All-Pro selection. RB Robert Smith was a Pro Bowler. They featured two future Hall of Fame WRs in Chris Carter and Randy Moss, the latter of whom was a First Team All-Pro selection after recording 1313 receiving yards and a jaw-dropping 17 touchdown receptions in his rookie year.
The defense wasn’t too shabby either, ranking seventh in the league in terms of points allowed. First-Team All-Pro selection DE John Randle led the unit with 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. LB Ed McDaniel was also a Pro Bowler.
The fated NFC Conference Championship Game
The Vikings were overwhelming, and the Falcons did a fantastic job to resist getting overwhelmed in that hostile Minnesota environment. The birds even took an early 7-0 lead courtesy of a 5-yard TD run by the dirty bird, Jamal Anderson. That was quickly countered by a 31-yard TD connection from Cunningham to Moss, however.
The game really blew open in the second quarter, and it looked like the Vikings were about to run away with it, the way they had been doing so against opponents all season. Through a pair of field goals and a 1-yard TD rush by the QB, the hosts opened up a 20-7 lead.
Cunningham and company looked poised to seal the deal by halftime as they had the ball on their own 18-yard-line with less than two minutes left. Chuck Smith came up with a massive sack and forced fumble on 3rd and 10, however, to give Atlanta the ball back on Minnesota’s 14-yard-line. Terrance Mathis would catch a touchdown shortly afterward, keeping Atlanta in the game. It was 20-14 at halftime.
The Vikings did enough to win this game. Leading 27-20, they drove down the field and lined up for a 38-yard game-sealing field goal with 2:07 left in the fourth quarter. Kicks were automatic points for them that season, thanks to Gary Anderson, who was a perfect 35 for 35 on Field Goal attempts and 94 for 94 on all kicks in general in 1998. It was the best season by a kicker ever, and as soon as he ran out onto the field, the nail went into Atlanta’s coffin.
It didn’t quite play out the way Vikings (and even Falcons) fans were expecting, however. The pressure of the big moment got to Anderson, and his kick sailed wide left to keep the Falcons within one score. Atlanta was given new life while the Vikings players and fans were left rattled.
Against a shell-shocked defense, Chris Chandler led a quick 72-yard drive down the field and capped it off with a game-tying TD pass to Mathis with about a minute left in regulation.
In overtime, Atlanta found themselves driving the ball once again, getting into the field goal range of their own kicker named Andersen — the Great Dane, Morten Andersen (yes, I know he has an e instead of an o in his name, but just go with it for the sake of the pun). From 39 yards out, Atlanta’s Andersen had ice in his veins and made a perfect kick to send the Falcons to the Super Bowl and to leave the Vikings asking themselves “what just happened?”
It was one of the great upsets in NFC Championship history. For all of the suffering we have endured as Atlanta fans, the pain experienced by Minnesota fans is right up there with our’s, and this game was the magnum opus of Minnesota sports heartbreak. I do personally like to look at this game as revenge for the 1991 World Series.
Morten Andersen would eventually surpass Gary Anderson’s NFL Field Goal record eight years later, once again as a member of the Atlanta Falcons after a four-year period away from the team which included a brief stint with the Vikings.
The Falcons would go on to lose the Super Bowl to John Elway and the Denver Broncos, before subsequently going back to mediocrity in 1999 and beyond, but this magical season, capped off by this magical moment, will never be forgotten here in Atlanta.
Expect to see one more of these “Throwback Thursday” articles next week, before the regular season begins.