Remembering the 1998 Atlanta Falcons
This weekend, the NFL's Final Four will commence with an epic doubleheader, the annual celebration of the conference championship games, the penultimate week of meaningful football until September. Among our quartet are some of the most prestigious franchises in NFL history, with 22 Super Bowl appearances amongst them. In fact, the winner of the late game, the AFC showdown between New England and Pittsburgh, will break a four way tie, along with Dallas and Denver, for most Super Bowl appearances in NFL history.
Contributing only one to that mere tally is the Atlanta Falcons.
The Falcons aren't exactly the first team that comes to your mind when you consider the great teams of NFL history. Atlanta has fallen on some hard times when it comes to sports, the Hawks trapped in NBA limbo under the LeBron James-run Eastern Conference, the Braves' glory days of the 90's a distant memory with a rebuild in full swing, and yet another NHL team bolting. The Falcons have been the most successful of the bunch, getting ready for their third conference championship game of the new century against the Green Bay Packers, they of five Super Bowl trips. Armed with the elite duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, they're seeking territory unchartered since the 1998-99 season...
Even when the Falcons partook in the biggest event, period, on the calendar, they were almost an afterthought. The Braves were still in the midst of their NL East monopoly, the Hawks were tipping off a lockout shortened season that ended with their final playoff appearance until 2008, and the city was preparing for the return of hockey with the Thrashers set to begin play in late 1999.
The Falcons were not expected to do much headed into the 1998 year. They had gone 7-9 the year before, paling to the relative success their neighbors were having. They boasted a solid running back in Jamal Anderson, coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, and drafted LB Keith Brooking in the first round of the '98 Draft, but there's a problem when the one potential future Hall-of-Famer on the roster was K Morten Anderson. Taking over for June Jones and a 3-13 squad, second-year coach Dan Reeves had the team in the right direction, but many were ready to hand Atlanta's NFC West division title to San Francisco, a 49ers team still featuring Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
Talented, yet flawed, role players took up the important positions. The offense was overseen by Chris Chandler, a journeyman quarterback who mustered a pair of Pro Bowl seasons in Atlanta. Terrence Mathis was probably the best receiver not named Julio in the Falcons' history, complimented by Tony Martin at tight end. A solid defense was anchored by LB Jesse Tuggle and DLs Lester Archambeau and Chuck Smith. Ray Buchanan and Eugene Robinson manned the secondary.
Atlanta's season started innocently enough, a pair of wins over Carolina and Philadelphia, before an early bye struck. A loss in San Francisco, who moved to 3-0, afterwards, was supposed to send the Falcons back to Earth.
But one week later, they sent the NFL a message that they were there to stay.
A home rematch with Carolina was never in doubt, as Tim Dwight, a 4th-round pick who was embarking on a decade-long NFL career, got things started with a 93-yard kickoff return to start the game, and the defense forced six turnovers en route to building a 38-3 lead. Anderson added 117 yards and the Falcons took it 51-23.
After two more wins, the Falcons were dealt another blow, a road loss to the New York Jets. It would be the last time they lost until The Big Game.
In case the NFL didn't get the message the first time, the Falcons served up two more statement wins. They destroyed a solid, pre-Tom Brady New England team 41-10 in Foxboro, and then dealt San Francisco a loss at the Georgia Dome in the rematch. The rest of the regular season went by perfectly, though Reeves sat out December games against New Orleans and Detroit for health reasons.
The playoffs were a new breed for the Falcons, making their first appearance in three years. They earned a first round bye with a 14-2 mark. San Francisco, narrow winners over Green Bay the week prior, wanted a best two-of-three, and the Falcons gleefully accepted the challenge. Anderson ran for 119 yards and two scores, and Young was intercepted three times, including on a final heave by William White, his second pick of the day, for a 20-18 victory. It wound up being the final postseason game of Young's storied career.
Then came...the NFC Championship.
The game was more or less a foregone conclusion. Minnesota was 15-1, they put up 556 points over the regular season, and featured 10 Pro Bowlers, like Randall Cunningham, Chris Carter and a certain rookie named Randy Moss. Minnesota was 11-point favorites entering, and it wasn't expected to be close game.
The two teams went blow for blow, neither team pulling ahead until the fourth quarter when Minnesota went up 27-17. The Falcons struck back with a field goal of their own, in a battle of unrelated kickers named Andersen. Morten knocked it down to 27-20, but the Vikings seemed to bet set up with their own, Gary Andersen, as he had never missed a field goal the entire season. But the unthinkable happened...a 38-yarder missed...and the Falcons had hope with 2:07 remaining.
Chandler, who would end his career with a 67-85 record as a starter, embarked on the drive of his life, an 8-play, 71-yard masterpiece, finding Mathis from 16 yards out for the tying score. In the overtime, the defense stood up and held the Vikings' offense in check, and then, in the cruelest of irony, Morten Andersen nailed the game winning field goal from...38 yards out. For the first time in their history, the Falcons were headed to football's biggest celebration.
And when the Falcons made the Super Bowl...they were just...there.
America loves a good underdog story, but the Falcons felt like unwanted guests at the biggest part of the year. Super Bowl XXXIII would become the final game of John Elway's career, and it was widely expected there would be a wild offensive showdown between the Broncos and Vikings. Atlanta, however, denied us that, and the Broncos were trapped in the no-win situation of winning against this surprise contender. Further travesty came when Robinson, mere hours after earning the Bart Starr Award for off-field contributions, was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. The game was never exactly close, and Atlanta fell 34-19.
It still goes down as the proudest moment in Falcons history. Anderson was a big case of what might've been...injuries prevented him from ever doing the "Dirty Bird" dance on the field. But tomorrow...Atlanta has the big chance to rewrite their history book. They'll be ready for the present. But for the best inspiration...look to the past. The 1998 Atlanta Falcons...no one who was exactly a superstar...yet went on to partake in Super things.
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