It wasn’t until I walked from the press box to the tunnel that runs under the Metrodome and I saw the stunned Minnesota Vikings, who were 15-1 in their regular season but who now had no particular place to go, walking slowly toward their locker room, that reality hit in its fullness. The Falcons really had beaten this mighty team on its home field. The Falcons, who had spent most of their existence getting things wrong, were bound for the Super Bowl.
The date was Jan. 17, 1999, and the astonishing game — the Falcons, who entered as 11-point underdogs and trailed 20-7, tied the score in the final minute of regulation and won on Morten Andersen’s field goal in overtime — took its place alongside Sid Bream’s slide and Hank Aaron’s 715th and the Braves’ Game 6 triumph over Cleveland in 1995 at the pinnacle of Greatest Atlanta Pro Sports Moments. This was a day, I told myself in that tunnel, that I would recall forever.
Fifteen years later, the memories remain vivid. Of Jamal Anderson and Ray Buchanan and coach Dan Reeves, who underwent quadruple bypass surgery only a month before, doing the Dirty Bird on the podium as they were presented the trophy as NFC champs. Of Taylor Smith, then the team’s owner, noting with awe that the Falcons didn’t commit a single false start in the deafening dome. Of Reeves pulling off his socks in the coaches’ locker room and saying of his team’s performance, “It just blows you away.”
But I also remember what came after. The Falcons messed up Super Bowl XXXIII in — might as well say it — Falcons-like fashion, from Terance Mathis griping about Pro Bowlers getting to exit the team plane in Miami first to Buchanan wearing a studded collar to Media Day to illustrate his team’s status as underdogs to Eugene Robinson getting arrested on Super Bowl Eve for solicitation hours after receiving the NFL’s man of the year award. Not coincidentally, they played their worst game in almost three months against Denver, losing 34-19 as Andersen missed a first-half field-goal attempt and Robinson was beaten by Rod Smith for an 80-yard touchdown on the next play.
That lamentable display, sorry to say, had a dulling effect on the greatest season the Falcons have known. When most Atlantans speak today of that Super Bowl run, their first words aren’t “NFC championship” but “Eugene Robinson.” And when the Falcons started the 1999 season 0-4, you would have thought the NFC title of the year before had been some trick of the light.
Having been there, I know better. But I also know that Super Bowl XXXIII remains a cosmic letdown unmatched in Atlanta annals, and what makes it worse is that the Falcons haven’t made it back to try to get it right.