As a third generation Atlantan, being a Falcons fan is in my blood. It's hard to imagine someone rooting for this franchise as long as I have without that being the case. It's a bond that has broken my heart more often than it has warmed it, but the special times are all memorable.
My grandparents were season ticket holders for 30 years until my grandmother's death in 1996. I went to every home game but one during the 1995 season and will always remember watching Bobby Hebert come off the bench and lead the Falcons to a win over the 49ers to clinch a playoff spot on Christmas Eve.
The '95 season was special to me, but no season will match the excitement, the passion and the unbelievability as the 1998 season.
The Falcons got off to a great start winning five of their first six games. The hot start didn't resonate with people because Atlanta was beating up on bad teams. The skeptics were in full voice after a humbling 28-3 beat down by the Jets pushed Atlanta to 5-2. A win over the hapless Rams and Atlanta headed to Foxboro for the first game that defined the '98 season.
The Patriots were two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance and the defending AFC East champs. No one gave Atlanta much hope, but the Falcons went up North thrashed the Patriots 41-10. That win started the bandwagon rolling. A win over the 49ers the next week and people would believe.
For most of the franchise's history Atlanta was the whipping boy of the 49ers in the old, and geographically challenges, NFC West. I grew up with memories of Jerry Rice torching Falcon Defensive Backs on a consistent basis.
I don't remember much of the Joe Montana era, but I do remember Steve Young tormenting the Birds time and time again. On Nov.15, 1998, the Atlanta Falcons fired back. Atlanta beat the 49ers 31-19 and for any team to be taken seriously in the West at the time, they had to go through the 49ers to do it. Atlanta did it. They were 8-2. They wouldn't lose another game in the regular season.
Jamal Anderson was a star. The Dirty Bird endzone dance took the nation by storm as the greatest touchdown celebration since the Icky Shuffle. Chris Chandler was leading the team efficiently and quietly taking a back seat to Anderson's flashy ways. The Defensive Line was ferocious compiling 30.5 sacks and 12 forced fumbles among the four starters. Cornelius Bennett was a rock in the middle.
Ray Buchanan barked but backed it up with his play. Eugene Robinson was a steadying force in the middle of the defensive secondary. Atlanta finished the regular season pounding Miami and finishing 14-2. They earned a first round bye as the number two seed in the NFC and expected to play Dallas in the second round, but the football gods had other ideas.
After a young, humble receiver named Terrell Owens caught a last second touchdown to lift San Francisco over Green Bay, the 49ers were the Falcons' first playoff test. The game scared the beejezus out of Falcon fans. Not those guys. Anybody but them. The fears were alleviated early, however in heart breaking fashion.
The 49er workhorse running back Garrison Hearst, one of the great Georgia Bulldog players of all-time, broke his leg early in the game and Atlanta raced to a 14-0 lead on the shell-shocked 49ers. They held on for a 20-18 win. Atlanta was headed to the NFC title game for the first time.
It was wild times in the ATL. We were at an all time high. My high school principal did the dirty Bird at a pep rally. Nobody thought we could do the impossible the next week, but that's the great thing about the sports. Just when you think something can't happen it does and it rocks the foundation of the league.
The Minnesota Vikings were unstoppable. Randall Cunningham had resurrected his career with the Vikings and along with a superb rookie Randy Moss the Vikings set all kinds of NFL scoring records en route to a 15-1 record. The Falcons struck first, but Minnesota quickly took control.
Minnesota led 20-7 shortly before halftime and looked like they were going to cruise when Falcon's Defensive End Chuck Smith forced a fumble shortly before halftime and Chandler hit Terance Mathis for a touchdown to cut the halftime deficit to six.
Inexplicably, Vikings head coach Dennis Green played conservatively in the second half allowing Atlanta to hang around. The Falcons couldn't quite even the score and it looked bleak when, with 2:07 left in the game and a seven point lead, the Vikings sent out Gary Anderson to ice the game.
Anderson was more than automatic. 35 for 35 on field goal attempts and 59 of 59 on extra points. He hadn't missed a kick all season. I couldn't bear to watch. He lined up for the 38 yarder and booted it. It sailed towards the upright. But it started going left. It sailed left. And further left. And further left still.
In what would prove to be the defining moment of his career, Chris Chandler went to work and like a surgeon, precisely sliced and diced the Vikings secondary before connecting with Mathis on a 16 yard touchdown to tie the game. The crowd was stunned. The Vikings were cooked.
They couldn't find any offensive rhythm in Overtime and Atlanta drove down before 16 year veteran Morten Andersen lined up for a 38 yarder of his own. This one wouldn't miss. It split the uprights. There was pandemonium on the Metrodome turf. There was pandemonium in my living room.
I did about 25 laps around my sofa with my arms raised in triumph. We were going to the Super Bowl. There wear tears of joy because my dad seriously had doubts this day would ever come. There were tears of sadness because my grandmother, who taught me a heck of a lot of what I know about football, wasn't able to see it happen.
Super Sunday was anything but for the Falcons. Eugene Robinson made a fool of himself. The Falcons got burned. It was never close. Elway went out on top. There were so many people in the Atlanta area tuning in to watch the game that cable went out all over the city 45 minutes prior to kickoff.
We got it back 15 minutes before game time. We would have been better off not watching. Still, the 1998 season was a dream come true.
In Typical Falcon fashion they squandered the momentum in 1999. Anderson held out and then blew out his knee early in the season. The Falcons limped to the finish line. The good will was gone. Nevertheless, for one magical Fall, the Atlanta Falcons managed to steal the magic the Atlanta Braves sprinkled on the town of Atlanta for so many years in the 1990s.
The success was fleeting and who really knows if, or when, Atlanta will make the Super Bowl again. That's why the 1998 season was special. For once, the Atlanta Falcons made believers of us all. Hopefully someday soon we will experience that thrill again.