A Real Head Turner In the most thrilling NFC title game of the '90s, the Atlanta Falcons shook off the mighty Vikings to earn their first trip to the Super Bowl

January 25, 1999

He threw his small body into a sea of purple and pushed forward
with all his might. Then Atlanta Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan
dropped to the turf in pain. Slightly more than four minutes
remained in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota
Vikings when Buchanan, after tackling running back Robert Smith,
felt his left knee buckle and twist. The Falcons' best defensive
player clenched his teeth and curled up on his side.
Figuratively, his team assumed the same position. Heavily
favored Minnesota led 27-20 and had the ball on Atlanta's
29-yard line. With 64,060 fans at the Metrodome screaming for
the Vikings to administer the kill shot, Buchanan felt his Super
Bowl dreams--and his career--teetering on the brink of extinction.

Damn, I blew out my knee, he thought. It's over. I'm finished. I
can't believe this is happening now. He shed a few tears and
started to pray. Even Cris Carter, the Minnesota wideout with
whom Buchanan had been jawing all afternoon, took his hand and
offered words of prayer. Then the Falcons' 5'9", 195-pound
All-Pro snapped out of his trance. "No, no, no! I ain't going out
like that!" he proclaimed. He got up, limped off the field and
shook off the injury, which turned out to be a hyperextension of
the knee. One snap later he returned to play a starring role in
the close of one of the most stirring NFL playoff games in recent
memory, which the Falcons won 30-27 on Morten Andersen's 38-yard
field goal after 11 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death drama.

To reach its first Super Bowl--and give coach Dan Reeves a shot at
his former employers, the Denver Broncos--Atlanta needed every
ounce of courage that Buchanan and his teammates could muster.
The Falcons played the biggest game in their 33-year history with
such crispness and cojones that it's hard to believe they were a
1-7 disgrace halfway through last season and a 7-9 afterthought
at year's end. When Andersen's kick sailed through the uprights,
the field turned to bedlam, and Buchanan was one of many Atlanta
players moved to tears. In the Metrodome stands, and across much
of the football-watching nation, it was so quiet you could hear a
chin drop.

"It feels like a miracle," Buchanan said early on Monday morning
as he and teammates celebrated back home in a delirious nightclub
in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. "This team was dirt. People
stepped on us and wiped their feet on the doormat. Now we feel
like a bunch of Michael Jordans. You can't kill us, and we'll do
whatever it takes to win."

To beat the Vikings, who rolled to a league-best 15-1 record in
1998, the Dirty Birds summoned the scrappiness that produced a
14-2 regular season and helped them outlast their longtime
tormentors, the San Francisco 49ers, in the divisional playoff
game. Minnesota, which had dominated the NFC with its grace and
power, was not used to winning ugly. "It's one thing to beat up
on people, but how do you react when someone's finally hitting
you back?" said Atlanta defensive end Chuck Smith, who forced one
of three fumbles by the Vikings' All-Pro quarterback, Randall
Cunningham. "We've been slugging it out all year."

After all the hype about Cunningham and his awesome set of
wideouts--Carter and rookie Randy Moss--the game's offensive hero
was Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler, who two years ago was an
injury-prone journeyman. On Sunday, Chandler completed 27 of 43
passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns without an
interception, but he was even better than those numbers suggest.
Displaying the cool precision of the heart surgeons who performed
a quadruple bypass on Reeves in mid-December, Chandler stitched
together the day's three most significant scoring drives: a
12-play, 76-yard touchdown march to start the game; a 71-yard
drive in the final two minutes that ended in a 16-yard touchdown
pass to wideout Terance Mathis with 49 seconds left in
regulation; and the 10-play, 70-yard pilgrimage to Mecca on the
Falcons' second overtime possession.

Equally clutch was the Atlanta defense, which by game's end had
rattled Cunningham out of his comfort zone, causing the sort of
jittery play that had plagued him throughout his long career with
the Philadelphia Eagles. After the Vikings took a 20-7 lead late
in the first half, the Falcons held them to seven points in their
final 10 possessions. "There were times when he looked like the
old Randall--when he was trying to win it by himself," said
Atlanta safety Eugene Robinson, whose lunging breakup of a
Cunningham bomb to Moss at the Falcons' 13 set up Atlanta's
game-winning possession.

Still, Minnesota came within inches of icing the game. With 2:11
remaining in regulation and a seven-point lead, and with the
Falcons down to one timeout, the Vikings' Gary Anderson lined up
for a 38-yard field goal. Anderson hadn't missed a kick since
1997; he had nailed all 39 of his field goal attempts after
joining Minnesota in '98, including a 29-yarder and a 35-yarder
earlier on Sunday. So, naturally, Anderson pulled this one about
a foot to the left. "Once he missed," said Atlanta tackle Bob
Whitfield, "you could see the light in everybody's eyes. It was
like our fate was now in our hands."

Or was it, more specifically, in Buchanan's hands? The cornerback
said that he "felt a little leather" as Anderson's kick whizzed
past his outstretched arms. Six plays after hurting his knee,
Buchanan had rushed around the right side of the Minnesota line
and soared like Internet stock. "If the kick had been on line,"
Buchanan said, "it probably would have hit me in the face mask."

All day long Buchanan was a Dirty Bird doing dirty work,
beginning with his war of words against the ultrareligious
Carter. At one point, according to Buchanan, Carter said, "You
either gotta be livin' for God or livin' with the devil."
Buchanan shot back, "Yo, Cris, come on--I'm trying to talk some
football trash here." Buchanan backed up his yapping, holding his
own against Carter and Moss. In his most impressive feat, he
ended the Vikings' opening overtime possession by going over the
back of the 6'4" Moss to bat down a tipped pass.

Buchanan had barely been able to contain his enthusiasm on the
day before the game as he sat in a downtown Minneapolis brewery
sipping Perrier. "I can picture this being a classic game, the
best in the NFC since Dallas and San Francisco a few years ago,"
he said excitedly. (In fact, it might have been the best NFC
title game since the one 17 years ago in which Dwight Clark made
the Catch to put the 49ers over the Cowboys.) Buchanan expressed
his admiration for Minnesota coach Dennis Green, whose adept
leadership inspired the Vikings this season and brought him to
the verge of being the first black coach to take a team to the
Super Bowl. "To many African-Americans, it'd be the biggest thing
to happen since the O.J. Simpson verdict," Buchanan said
laughing.

If the Vikes revere Green, the Falcons are equally gaga over
Reeves, who became the patriarch of their dysfunctional family
before the '97 season. He began a massive cleanup campaign by
acquiring new leaders on both sides of the ball: Buchanan, who
had spent four years with the Indianapolis Colts, and Chandler,
who had had five previous NFL employers. "Last year it felt like
we were an expansion team, there were so many new faces,"
Buchanan said. "I'd go to restaurants around town or talk to
people in the locker room, and all I'd hear was what a bunch of
a------- the Falcons were. People said guys would come to
meetings on Thursday and Friday mornings wearing the same clothes
from the night before, smelling like doughnuts and Crown Royal.
There were cancers on the team, guys who weren't ready to
perform. Dan Reeves cleaned all that up."

Whitfield, who joined Atlanta in '92, says the team "used to be a
rambunctious bunch. We had our fun but didn't concentrate too
much on football. The word around the league was, once you got
the Falcons down a little, that was it. Back then we didn't know
how to win. Now it's like we don't know how to lose."

Reeves's overhaul of the roster--he brought in 38 of Atlanta's 53
current players--included an infusion of experienced winners, a
point the coach drove home in an emotional team meeting last
Friday morning. The players, who had expected an uneventful
update on travel plans to Minneapolis, went wild as Reeves opened
a box containing more than a dozen championship rings: those from
Reeves's three AFC titles as the Broncos' coach and the Super
Bowl rings of offensive line coach Art Shell (who collected two
as an Oakland Raiders player), Robinson (who earned one as a
member of the '96 Green Bay Packers) and others. "Forget about
all the hype," Reeves said. "This is what we're trying to
attain."

Chandler hardly needed extra motivation. Each time he read a
quote from a Vikings player about the importance of shutting down
Atlanta's All-Pro running back, Jamal Anderson, Chandler bit his
lip and waited for Sunday. His calm during the game was almost
unnerving. Said Falcons lineman Dave Widell, an 11th-year veteran
who was inactive for Sunday's game, "I've played with some cool
customers at quarterback--Mark Brunell, Troy Aikman, John
Elway--but this guy is the true Ice Man."

Using a silent cadence triggered by the bobbing of center Robbie
Tobeck's head, Chandler and his teammates ignored the noise in
the Metrodome--which was bolstered obnoxiously by '80s rock music
piped over the loudspeakers--and never got flagged for a false
start. Mathis and fellow wideout Tony Martin teamed with Chandler
to gash a Minnesota secondary led by hard-hitting cornerback
Corey Fuller. The game's longest play was made not by Moss but by
Martin, who burned cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock with an
outside-inside stutter move and caught a 70-yard pass two minutes
into the fourth quarter. That set up a 24-yard field goal by
Andersen that cut Minnesota's lead to 27-20. "I picked up that
move from watching [former Miami Dolphins wideout] Mark Duper,"
said Martin, a hero of the San Diego Chargers' upset of the
Pittsburgh Steelers in the '94 AFC Championship Game. "I call it
the kaboom move." Chandler, who made the fireworks possible, was
crushed by defensive end Duane Clemons after releasing the ball.

Nine minutes into overtime, Chandler survived an even bigger hit,
a helmet-to-helmet collision with linebacker Dwayne Rudd after he
had scrambled six yards to the Minnesota 31. Chandler was woozy
as he handed the ball to Anderson (23 carries, 67 yards) three
consecutive times to set up third-and-nine from the 21, and he
was utterly disoriented when he saw long-snapper Adam Schreiber
run onto the field. "I thought, What protection package is this?"
Chandler said later. "Then it hit me: We're trying a field goal!
I'd better get off the field."

On came Andersen, who is one of the best kickers in NFL history,
yet is remembered these days mainly for missing a chip shot
against the Jacksonville Jaguars two years ago, facilitating the
Jags' shocking run to the AFC Championship Game. This was the
38-year-old Dane's chance to create a new lasting impression, and
he seized it as Pamela Anderson would secure a Playboy photo
shoot. When time expired, Morten Andersen told Jamal Anderson
(confused yet?), "You guys got us to this point, now it's up to
me. I'm going to be the difference maker." He was, nailing a
field goal that moved Reeves to attempt the Dirty Bird dance with
several Atlanta players on the victory podium. The celebration
continued on the team's charter flight home, during which players
ripped apart their pillows and released enough feathers to cover
a flock of geese.

"Morten gets to keep his green card," Chandler had joked as he
dressed in a long-empty locker room. The Ice Man was no longer
woozy, thanks to a cold shower. Outside the buses were revved up
and ready to go to the airport, but Chandler took his time
getting dressed. He knew there was no way that plane was flying
without him.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS HAT IN HAND Orlando Thomas went head-hunting after Tim Dwight ran for 21 yards in the third quarter. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO In overtime Robinson (41) tipped away a near-certain game-winner intended for Moss. [Eugene Robinson knocking football out of Randy Moss's hands] COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER PLAYING CATCH-UP Martin's 70-yard grab led to a field goal that cut the Vikings' lead to 27-20. [Tony Martin catching football] COLOR PHOTO: VINCENT MUZIK GREAT DANE The Falcons' Andersen (5) had the first chance to kick the game-winner in overtime, and his left foot got the job done. [Morten Andersen kicking field goal]

"This team was dirt," said Buchanan. "People stepped on us.
Now we feel like a bunch of Michael Jordans. You can't kill us."

"You guys got us to this point, now it's up to me," Andersen said
before OT began. "I'm going to be the difference maker."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)