The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. The No. 1 moment takes us to the 1998 season, when a Morten Andersen 38-yard game-winning field goal in the NFC Championship game sent the Falcons to their first Super Bowl. The victory highlighted the franchises most successful season and a year that transformed the franchise.
Date: Jan. 17, 1999
Setting the stage: Before the NFC Championship game came a make or break moment in the regular season. Including Atlanta’s 31-20 Week 3 loss to the 49ers, Atlanta had lost five straight contests to the division-rival 49ers. In front of 70,000-plus fans at the Georgia Dome for their Week 11 matchup, however, the red-hot Falcons reversed the curse and beat Steve Young, Jerry Rice and crew 31-19. The Atlanta defense, led by Jesse Tuggle, held the ‘Niners to just 76 yards on the ground. Tuggle scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to put Atlanta up 24-6. Atlanta won its last nine games of the regular season after a 5-2 start and entered the playoffs as the No. 2 seed.
The playoffs: After a bye in the first round, Atlanta beat the 49ers again in the Divisional Round 20-18, but the real challenge was waiting in the NFC Championship at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome with the 16-1 Vikings. In what remains the greatest win in Falcons history and one of the most shocking upsets in NFL playoff history, the Falcons prevailed despite falling behind 20-7 in the second quarter. Minnesota led 27-20 and had a chance to ice the game in the closing minutes of regulation, but Vikings kicker Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of the season on a 38-yard attempt. The Falcons took advantage of a rare miscue by one of the best teams of the modern era and quarterback Chris Chandler found Terance Mathis in the end zone with 49 seconds left to send it to overtime. The Falcons defense came up with a stop to start the overtime and the Vikings were forced to punt the ball back into the hands Chandler and the fervent Falcons offense. Chandler drove down the field and set up a 38-yard Andersen field goal that went through the uprights and clinched the 30-27 victory. With the win, the Falcons became the first domed team to ever reach the Super Bowl.
The Dirty Bird: The 1998 season also gave birth to the symbol of Atlanta’s most successful season. During a Week 10 win at New England, which ended a string of 22 straight losses at cold-weather stadiums, the infamous Dirty Bird dance was created. Running back Jamal Anderson ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns to power the Falcons to a 41-10 drubbing of the Patriots. The Dirty Bird dance swept the NFL as everyone from players, to fans, to even coaches began to show off their dance moves.
Making a run: The 1997 season gave a preview of the type of talent the Falcons had lining up on the 1998 roster. The ’97 season had culminated with a 7-9 record, but the team ended the year on a hot streak after their 2-7 start and got the sense that the pieces were in place to make a run and achieve something special in ’98.
“We knew we had a good team as we were coming off a season where we won five of our last seven games and added some really good pieces,” explained Terance Mathis. “Then, we reeled off 11 wins in a row after we lost in New York [to the Jets Week 8].’’
Close Call: After Week 14, head coach Dan Reeves was diagnosed with multiple blockages to his coronary arteries, a condition that would require quadruple bypass surgery. Reeves ignored the warning signs in hopes of finishing the season, but ultimately got checked out just in time. Doctors stated that by the time he checked in, he was within hours of what could have been a catastrophic heart attack. Reeves missed Week 15 and 16 as defensive coordinator Rich Brooks took over as head coach, but returned for the regular season finale and led the team into the playoffs.
What was written on the front page of the AJC the day after the game:
“We shocked the world! We shocked the world!” Jerome Francis shouted, doing the Dirty Bird along with everyone else in his friend’s living room.
Mickey White skipped through Barnacle’s Restaurant in Norcross yelling, “We’re going to Miami! We’re going to Miami!” Then he broke into a slow flap and sang: “I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky …”
Gary Head wept tears of joy at Y-Knot Sports Bar in Peachtree City.
“Unbelievable,” said the 14-year season-ticket holder.
When Morten Andersen’s overtime field goal sailed through the uprights Sunday, it propelled the Falcons to the Super Bowl for the first time. It also set off a wild celebration that had metro Atlanta partying well into the night, and sent fans scrambling to make travel arrangements for Miami.
“Unbelievable,” said the 14-year season-ticket holder.
Fans spilled out of sports bars and danced on Peachtree Street, closing some blocks to traffic. Drivers honked their horns. People grinned and laughed and high-fived. What else do you do when the unthinkable happens?
“When they won it, I said, ‘That down there just froze, ‘ ” Kroger employee Brian Hix said, pointing down.
“Well, at least it’s getting cold,” added Daniel Finney, a co-worker at the Snellville grocery store where customers and employees alike watched the end of the game on a television near the deli.
Travel agents immediately began taking calls from fans wanting to fly to Miami for the Jan. 31 Super Bowl.
“The phones have been ringing off the hook,” said Don Furlong, division manager at AAA Norcross World Travel. “It started about five minutes after the game.”
Most commercial airlines are sold out to Miami already, says Furlong. Super Bowl packages are not for the budget-conscious: A four-night air travel deal including end-zone tickets goes for $3,999.
“Last Sunday we offered a charter to Minneapolis for the championship game, it was sold out by Tuesday morning, ” said Furlong.
Mary Bross of Peachtree City already has booked airline tickets and a hotel room. She’s a season ticket holder who has entered the lottery for a chance to buy Super Bowl tickets. If the lottery doesn’t come through, she’ll go to Miami anyway and scrounge for tickets.
“It’s phenomenal,” she said. “I’ve been following the Falcons for 20 years and I can’t believe we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
Some fans gave up before the Falcons made their remarkable comeback. When the Vikings went up 20-7 in the second quarter, a few started talking about next season.
“It’s not over, it’s not over, “urged Adolphus Victrum, 55, a former beer vendor at Falcons’ games. “I’m a diehard fan. They can come back.”
And as the tide turned Atlanta’s way late in the game, fans all over the metro area grew more confident.
“They will, they will, ” Dottie Haskins chanted softly as she watched in The Pub, a nonalcoholic lounge at the Renaissance on Peachtree. “You’ve got to remember we weren’t the favorite, but with heart and soul we can do it.”
When the Falcons overcame the Vikings in overtime, emotion overcame Don Lancaster, 33.
“I cried. I mean you can’t beat that, “said Lancaster, who watched at Jocks & Jills at the Omni. “When you take into consideration how many people it takes to make something like that work and then a team like Atlanta that just hasn’t had any support, and then it took somebody like Dan (Reeves) to bring it together. You’ve got to thank him for that.”
One fan who could have attended the NFC Championship game but chose not to was Rebecca Smith, the daughter of team President Taylor Smith. She stayed home to celebrate her 14th birthday.
“It was exciting to watch it on TV, but I was kind of mad I wasn’t with my dad, ” Rebecca said. “I was cheering, I was so excited, I was real tense, I couldn’t watch. I had my doubts, but I knew something good would come out of it.”
The Top 10 plays in Falcons history:
No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road
No. 9: Claude Humphrey gets call to Canton
No. 8: Playoff win in the ‘Frozen Tundra’
No. 7: Matt Ryan’s first NFL pass
No. 6: Hail Mary pass known as’Big Ben II’
No. 5: The Trade to get ‘Bart’
No. 4: Nobis is Falcons’ first-ever draft choice
No. 3: ‘Big Ben Right’
No. 2: Matty Ice, Bryant sink Seahawks
No. 1: The Kick