Heading into the 1998 NFL season, the Atlanta Falcons had not qualified for the postseason since 1995 and had not won a playoff game since the 1991 NFC divisional round.
The franchise was not expected to do much in 1998, either, having compiled a 3-13 record in 1996 and a 7-9 mark in 1997. Furthermore, quarterback Chris Chandler was one month away from turning 33 when the 1998 season began.
Additionally, Atlanta passed on mercurial wideout Randy Moss in the NFL Draft, so Chandler was left with serviceable but unspectacular receivers Terance Mathis and Tony Martin.
Nobody—at least nobody outside of the Falcons’ locker room—could have believed what would eventually materialize for the moribund franchise. Atlanta won its first two games heading into a bye in Week Three before losing to NFC West rival San Francisco, one of the powerhouse teams of the 1990s.
The Falcons promptly bounced back before Chandler went down with an injury and missed a Week 8 visit to the New York Jets. With backup Steve DeBerg in command of a surprising 5-1 Atlanta squad, the team succumbed 28-3 to the host Jets.
Just when everyone surely thought the upstart Falcons were on their way back to reality, Chandler returned. And so did the victories. Atlanta did not lose another game throughout the remainder of the regular season, ending on an improbable nine-game winning streak. None of those contests were decided by less than seven points.
With an amazing 14-2 record, Atlanta stormed into the playoffs as the NFC West Champions. Despite their dream run, the Falcons were denied the conference’s No. 1 seed by Minnesota.
It was the Vikings who had dared not to pass up Moss in April’s draft, and the gamble paid off in the form of one of the most high-powered offenses in the history of the league.
Led by Moss and veteran quarterback Randall Cunningham, Minnesota went 15-1 in the regular season to edge out the Falcons for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
After the Vikings took care of Arizona in round two and the Falcons squeaked by San Francisco 20-18 in the Georgia Dome, the NFC Championship showdown was set.
In basically everyone’s eyes, the Falcons were done before the game even started. They were done when a raucous Metrodome crowd harassed Atlanta into multiple false starts on its first possession. They were done when Cunningham and Moss hooked up for a 31-yard touchdown on Minnesota’s opening drive.
They were done when the Vikings took a 27-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. They were done when previously-perfect Gary Anderson lined up a chip-shot 38-yard field goal that would have given Minnesota another 10-point, two-possession lead with barely more than 2:00 left in the game.
They were done when the Vikings won the coin toss in overtime. And they were done when Minnesota got the ball back in overtime after the Falcons went three and out.
Oh, but they weren’t done. The Falcons bounced back from the early false-start penalties to score a touchdown on their initial possession. They recovered from 20-7 deficit late in the first half to get within six at intermission after Chandler connected with Mathis on a scoring strike.
They survived when Anderson missed his first field goal of the entire season. They were undaunted when Minnesota had two chances with the ball in overtime.
Not only did the never-say-die Falcons refuse to quit; they won. They went into the Metrodome and did what no other team had done all season; they won. When Morten Andersen booted home a 38-yard field goal with 3:08 left in overtime, the Falcons were 1998 NFC Champions and on their way to the Super Bowl.
Ultimately the Falcons’ incredible 1998 campaign ended in a losing effort, a 34-19 loss to John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII. Sometimes, however, second best is good enough.
The 1998 Falcons did not just bring wins to Atlanta, they also brought excitement. Jamal Anderson, the workhorse running back who was given a whopping 410 carries in the regular season and scored 14 touchdowns on the ground, invented “the Dirty Bird.”
First, Anderson did it when he scored touchdowns, then all of his teammates started doing it when they found the end zone. Even legendary head coach Dan Reeves did it—albeit poorly!—after Atlanta’s memorable win at Minnesota. By then, the entire city of Atlanta was doing it.
It’s easy to like a team that wins, but it’s hard to fall in love with a team unless they do something more. The 1998 Falcons did not just win; they made the people in their city believe that anything is possible.
Back when I was 10 years old or so, I owned a shirt that said “work is the vehicle through which dreams become reality.” I didn’t truly understand what that meant until I was introduced to the 1998 Atlanta Falcons. And that is why they are—and most likely always will be—my favorite team of all time.