Jan. 15, 2018
Falcons Flashback Friday: 1998 Divisional Playoff vs. 49ers
It's hard to think of playoff flashbacks for the Falcons given their history pre-Matt Ryan hasn't been much, and until the wins started coming in, there REALLY hasn't been much in the way of memorable playoff flashbacks, and save for the win agianst the Seattle Seahawks last year the divisional playoffs have always been more of nightmares for Atlanta.
However, one game does stick out, and that is the San Francisco 49ers
Yes, the 49ers again. Now I chose this game large in part because back in 1998, the Atlanta Falcons until that point had not won a divisional game. Prior to 1998, the Falcons went 0-3 in divisional playoffs, losing in 1978 and 1980 to the Dallas Cowboys (with the latter being probably the biggest heartbreak to Falcons fans until last year) and then in 1991 against the powerful Washington Redskins.
1998 was a surprise to everybody in the NFL about how the Falcons played. Just 2 years removed from a horrible 3-13 showing, the Falcons were expected to be a playoff threat, possibly going 9-7 or maybe 10-6 at best thanks to hiring Dan Reeves. But the Falcons started off 2-0 before getting their annual "lunch handed to them by the 49ers" game in San Francisco and then won a few before getting drilled in New York to the Jets. After that however, the Falcons took off, beating everybody they saw, including thumping the Patriots in Foxboro and a week after exacting a measure of revenge on San Francisco in the Georgia Dome to actually push away from the 49ers in the division. The final record was a 14-2 record, and 2nd best in the NFC, behind the mighty Minnesota Vikings that year.
San Francisco, who had still remained a powerful team in the 90's alongside Green Bay, and Dallas, won a classic Wild Card war with the Packers, a team they had issues beating in the playoffs in previous years, was on the deck for the Falcons. Heading into the game, many fans, including Falcon fans felt like this was 1980 all over and that Atlanta would just fall because well, it was Atlanta. So needless, to say, there was anxiety on the Atlanta end, as well as excitement.
However, the game started and the bad omen hit San Francisco as Garrison Hearst, who ran for nearly 1,600 yards in 1998 broke his ankle (thus missing 2 years of his career) and was lost for the remainder of the game.
The Falcons scored on their second drive of the game thanks in part to a 36-yard return by Tim Dwight. Jamal Anderson, who had a monster year, got the drive rolling and then Chris Chandler found Terance Mathis for a big pass to put it at first and goal. Two plays later, Anderson punched it in to get the Falcons a 7-0 lead.
Atlanta's defense kept San Francisco off the board all first quarter and most of the 2nd quarter while the offense was able to put up some quality drives. But the drive everybody remembers was the one capped by Anderson's Falcon dive into the end zone to put Atlanta up 14-0. The Dome was going bonkers. It seemed like all was going well in the ATL.
However, Steve Young led San Francisco back with an excellent drive, finding Jerry Rice for 17 yards out to make it 14-7, but with time for Atlanta to make a drive before halftime.
Instead the tide turned a bit after Chandler got picked by Junior Bryant after a deflection in Atlanta's territory. San Francisco drove close enough into the territory and in the red zone to kick a field goal to make it 14-10 at halftime.
In one of the stranger quarters as I remembered, the Falcons started the 3rd driving fairly well and got into San Francisco territory. On the 49ers 42, Atlanta opted to go for it with the powerful Anderson, but got stopped by the defense. All momentum went the 49ers way. San Francisco made a great drive of their own, but Young got picked off by Eugene Robinson who nearly went the entire field for a pick six, dancing around in the process. Despite the good territory (San Francisco 20), Atlanta could only muster another Morten Andersen FG to go up 17-10.
The next San Francisco drive was also one that ended in an interception by William White after a big play by Jerry Rice and gave Atlanta great field position. The Falcons drove into the red zone but sputtered, leaving Andersen to kick another FG to make it 20-10.
The 49ers, known for their quick strikes, then used the Falcons playbook of taking up time and gained decent yards on the next drive, taking off nearly 7 minutes of the 4th quarter. The key play was a 33-yard pass from Young to JJ Stokes which was capped by a Steve Young TD run. A FG fake from Ty Detmer to Gary Clark pushed the game to 20-18. Now a FG for the Niners would send them to the NFC Championship.
The Falcons netted a key first down right at the two-minute warning but still had to punt to the 49ers. Thankfully, the 49ers had to start at their own two. After two first downs, Young and the 49ers couldn't make any more passes and was intercepted by William White again to end the game. The Falcons ended their divisional playoff demons and their demons from a team that had owned them forever in the 49ers. And they did with key turnovers, frustrating the likes of Rice, Terrell Owens, and JJ Stokes.
But what that game may have done was give Falcons a bit of a "relaxer" somewhat as the pressure of not doing well in playoff games finally subsided and went to Minnesota in a classic NFC Championship tilt. And we all know what happened there.
This weekend Atlanta has to face their demons of the Eagles who have their number in Philadelphia. Now while the Falcons are the favorites, they will still have to deal with a tough crowd and a place where it hasn't been too kind (1-4 in Lincoln Financial Field). And who knows, another win to slay some demons and it may be back to Minnesota.
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat