January 17, 2010

1999: Falcons Stun Vikings in Overtime for NFC Championship

The 1998 Minnesota Vikings certainly appeared to be a championship team in the making as they rode a powerful offense to a 15-1 record that easily topped the NFC Central and set a mark with 556 points scored along the way (since topped by the 2007 Patriots). Head Coach Dennis Green’s team had benefited from the revival of 36-year-old QB Randall Cunningham’s career; after a year’s retirement and a season as a backup, he took over for the injured Brad Johnson and proceeded to lead the NFL in passing, with 3704 yards and 34 touchdowns against just 10 interceptions. He had outstanding targets in veteran WR Cris Carter (78 catches, 1011 yards) and rookie sensation Randy Moss (69 receptions, 1313 yards, and a rookie-record 17 TD catches) at the other wide receiver spot. RB Robert Smith accounted for 1187 rushing yards as well.

The Vikings easily disposed of the upstart Arizona Cardinals in the Divisional round and hosted the Atlanta Falcons at the Metrodome on January 17, 1999 for the NFC Championship.

The Falcons had won the NFC West with a 14-2 tally under Head Coach Dan Reeves. They didn’t dazzle in the ways that Minnesota did, with a run-oriented offense keyed by RB Jamal Anderson (1846 yards). Veteran QB Chris Chandler had a steady season in which he achieved career highs in passing yards (3154) and touchdown passes (25) as well as a 100.9 passer rating. Wide receivers Terance Mathis and Tony Martin both had over 60 catches and 1100 yards. The defense was unspectacular but opportunistic, leading the league in takeaways (44). Atlanta defeated the 49ers in the Divisional round to move to the NFC Championship game, where they were an 11-point underdog.

The Falcons scored on their first possession, marching 76 yards in 15 plays and getting a touchdown on a five-yard pass from Chandler to Anderson. Minnesota came right back with a 31-yard TD pass from Cunningham to Moss, evening the score at 7-7 after one quarter. The Vikings appeared to take control of the game in the second quarter, taking advantage of fumbles by Atlanta RB Harold Green and TE O.J. Santiago as they added two field goals by Gary Anderson and a one-yard touchdown run by Cunningham for a 20-7 lead.

Momentum shifted back to the Falcons late in the second quarter, however, when Cunningham fumbled the ball away. Chandler threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Mathis on the first play after the turnover and the deficit was cut to 20-14 at the half.

Atlanta pulled closer in the third quarter thanks to a 27-yard Morten Andersen field goal. But the Vikings got on the board again early in the fourth quarter after a 15-play, 82 yard drive that ended with a 5-yard TD pass from Cunningham to WR Matthew Hatchette.

The Falcons came back quickly thanks to Chandler’s 70-yard pass to Martin that set up a 24-yard Andersen field goal. The Minnesota offense stalled in its next two possessions, but when they went 55 yards to set up a potentially game-clinching field goal with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter, it appeared that they were on the way to the Super Bowl. However, Gary Anderson, who had not missed any of his 35 field goal attempts during the season or his four thus far in the postseason, was wide to the left on the 38-yard attempt.

Atlanta’s offense had shown great poise throughout the game, particularly in the loud Metrodome venue, and with the Vikings fans in full roar, proceeded to drive 71 yards in eight plays that culminated in Chandler’s 27-yard pass to Mathis that tied the score at 27-27 and sent the contest into overtime (pictured at top).

Minnesota received the kickoff in “sudden death”, but in two possessions was unable to effectively move the ball. Mitch Berger punted 52 yards to the Atlanta nine yard line after the second possession. Chandler, now limping from an ankle injury, provided more heroics as he hit Santiago on passes of 15 and 26 yards to move the Falcons to the Minnesota 48. The offense drove the ball in deliberate fashion down to the Vikings 21, and Morten Andersen kicked a 38-yard field goal (pictured at bottom) to give Atlanta a 30-27 win and the conference title.

The Falcons offense accounted for 427 yards to Minnesota’s 356 in the stunning victory. Chris Chandler (pictured at left) had an outstanding performance as he completed 27 of 43 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Tony Martin gained 129 yards on 5 pass receptions, while Terance Mathis caught 6 passes for 73 yards and two scores and Jamal Anderson, who also led the running attack with 67 yards on 23 carries, also caught 6 passes, for 33 yards and a TD.

Randall Cunningham (pictured above right) completed 29 of his 48 passes for 266 yards and two TDs, also having none picked off. Randy Moss and Cris Carter both caught 6 passes, with Moss gaining 75 yards and scoring once, and Carter accumulating 67 yards. Robert Smith rushed 21 times for 71 yards against the tough Falcon defense.

Afterward, many of the comments pertained to the shocking missed field goal attempt by Gary Anderson. “There's no such thing as a guarantee in football in any way, shape or form,” said Coach Dennis Green. “We had such tremendous expectations. That makes it ten times more disappointing,” added Anderson, who had not only had an outstanding season prior to the miss but was one of the great placekickers in NFL history over the course of his long career (the same could be said of Atlanta’s Morten Andersen).

Jubilant Atlanta LB Jessie Tuggle, leader of the defensive unit that performed so well, exclaimed, “We shocked the world! No one thought we would be where we are right now, playing in the NFC Championship. But not only did we come here to play in it, we came here to win it.”

The jubilation failed to extend into the Super Bowl against the Denver Broncos – the Falcons lost convincingly, 34-19. They dropped to 5-11 in 1999 and didn’t return to the playoffs until the 2002 season.

The stunning loss in the ’98 NFC Championship game cast a pall over what had arguably been the Minnesota franchise’s greatest season. The Vikings were back in ’99, but the team wasn’t as dominating and made it into the postseason as a wild card, losing in the Divisional round.