How Falcons reached their first Super Bowl

20th anniversary of Falcons’ trip to Super Bowl passed with little fanfare

The 20th anniversary of the Falcons reaching the franchise’s first Super Bowl passed quietly.

With Super Bowl LIII set to be played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Feb. 3, several players from the 1998 Falcons team noticed that the Minnesota Vikings honored their 1998 team Sept. 10 during halftime of a home game. 

“That was bizarre to me,” said kicker Morten Andersen, who’s a Pro Football Hall of Famer. “I don’t know what the reasoning was there. Maybe they didn’t have one. I’m not looking for that, but that was a special team, and if it’s 20 years ago, that should have been recognized. Whatever. Maybe they are waiting for the 25th.”

The Falcons have an extensive alumni program, but didn’t recognize the 1998 team individually.

“As an organization, we take great pride in the connection we have tried to cultivate with our Alumni,” according to a statement released by the team. “We engage them in community activities during the year and have an Alumni Day every year that coincides with a Falcon home game. 

“Last season we introduced our Falcons Legends Ambassadors Program to celebrate our former players who continue to embody our organizational and community values. The program is made up of players who have spent four or more seasons with the Falcons, which includes over 200 alumni. We will continue to support all of our former players and teams by putting a tremendous effort behind our Legends Ambassadors Program.”

The Falcons won 30-27 on a field goal in overtime by Andersen to upset the heavily favored Vikings on Jan. 17, 1999. 

“When we saw they were celebrating, we saw they were celebrating a great moment at that time and them getting pretty far and close to a championship,” former Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith said. “I guess it really made me feel good that we were the team that beat them and they were celebrating being the second best team in the NFC.”

The Falcons were founded in 1966 and before the 1998 run, the team had reached the playoffs just five times. It was the Falcons’ first appearance in the NFC Championship game. The five previous playoff teams – 1978, 1980, 1982, 1991 and 1995 -- lost in the wild-card round or the divisional round. 

“You’d think we would have celebrated it more with it being the 20th year,” former linebacker Jessie Tuggle said. 

Some players got together during the season, but didn’t hold any formal ceremony on their own. 

“Unfortunately, just amongst ourselves, myself, Chuck Smith, Jamal (Anderson), and a few other guys,” Tuggle said. “We’d just sit and talk and reminisce about the good old days. It was really just amazing that 20 years went by that fast.”

The 1998 team had to overcome some incredible hurdles to reach the Super Bowl.

“It was just a great year,” said coach Dan Reeves, who was the head man for the Falcons from 1997 to 2003. “We had a lot of things that happened with the team coming together and playing as well as it did. It started the year before with a good run.”

After a game against the Saints, Reeves complained of a burning sensation in his upper chest. He would have multiple-bypass surgery and miss some of the special season after a 12-2 start.

“With the health issues, the guys did a great job,” Reeves said. “I found out how much I was missed when I was away. They didn’t miss me at all (laughs).”

Reeves returned in three weeks to lead the team into the NFC Championship game. 

Falcons coach Dan Reeves (right) does the dirty bird dance with players Jamal Anderson (32) and Ray Buchanan (34) after clinching the NFC title in 1999. 
Photo: AJC

“I was just glad to get back and be a part of it,” Reeves said. “It would have been nice if we could have beaten the team that I’d coached to several Super Bowls, too. It just didn’t work out for us.”

Tuggle looks back on the 1998 season fondly.

“Right past the mid-season we started to think that we have a legit team and a legit chance to get to the Super Bowl,” Tuggle said. “But to get to the Super Bowl we had to beat the No.1 offense in the NFL, which at that particular time was the Minnesota Vikings.”

The Falcons were heavy underdogs in the game. 

“To go to Minnesota and to beat them when no one in the league thought we could do it,” Tuggle said. “Only our Falcons’ family thought that we could go up there and take them Dirty Birds and beat the Minnesota Vikings.

“That’s what we did.”

After Andersen’s 38-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, bedlam ensued. 

“I can remember laying on the turf,” Tuggle said. “Chuck Smith was on top of me. I said, ‘I can’t believe we are going to the Super Bowl.’ There were some great memories.”

But the Viking had their 20-year celebration.

“They sure did,” Tuggle said. “It was a little disappointing why we didn’t do it here in Atlanta. I don’t know why the organization didn’t celebrate the 20th year. But I did see that Minnesota did celebrate although they lost the championship and we won it.

“I thought that was pretty ironic, but it was just weird like that. It is a memory that will last a lifetime that I have and that’s the most important thing.” 

The trip to Super Bowl ended with a 34-19 loss to the Broncos on Jan. 31, 1999.

“We couldn’t put it in the end zone,” Andersen said. “It’s not something that I like to talk a lot about. As great as the NFC championship was, the Super Bowl was the polar opposite.”

The Falcons’ win over the Vikings helped to usher in a new era in the NFC.

Before that win, the NFC had been dominated by the NFC East and San Francisco for the previous decade. The NFC East teams – Dallas (three), Washington (one) and the New York Giants (one) -- won NFC titles. San Francisco won three and Green Bay two. 

“At the time there was no parity,” Smith said. “It was always Dallas or San Francisco. … It gave the Rams hope. It gave Tampa hope. It gave the Ravens hope. … Before we got there no one would have dreamt the Saints would ever win a Super Bowl. Never. No one could even dream that Tampa could (win a Super Bowl). When we went, I think it opened up a lot of eyes.”

Atlanta Falcons kicker Morten Andersen (5) and holder Dan Stryzinski (4) celebrate Andersen's 39-yard field goal to give Atlanta a 30-27 overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship in Minneapolis.
Photo: Ed Reinke/AP

The Falcons had major swagger as the “Dirty Bird” dance was sweeping the nation. 

“I was talking to Isaac Bruce (of the St. Louis Rams), and he said when we realized that we could compete with you’ll, even though you beat us, we knew we had a shot to get there,” Smith said. “So, the ‘Greatest Show on Turf,’ we motivated those guys by whipping them, and they came back and whupped us.”

Instead of the Dirty Ram, they picked the “Bob and Weave” for the touchdown celebration.

“The point that I’m real proud about is at the time the organization went out and did whatever it took to the right players ... but the real blessing of that ’98 team was that team was built and it came together,” Smith said. “It came together over lots of years, lack of success, shortened success, we’d have some success, then we wouldn’t have success. But there are a lot of reasons why that team was special because it took years of friendships and drafts.

“It was really an awesome time with friends and guys who wanted to bring a championship to Atlanta. We brought the NFC championship here.”

The 1998 team would like to see the past team linked to the current teams and bridge the two eras in front of the fans in the new billion stadium. 

“The fans deserved to see their team in a different light,” Smith said. “We started the foundation that continued through the Mike Vick years. We started a fan base that believed that it could be done.

“The Falcons fans had been looking for a Super Bowl for a long time, and I’m just glad that we were the start of that it can be done and it can be done in Atlanta.”

It was the Falcons’ only NFC title until the 2016 team beat Green Bay 44-21 on Jan. 17, 2017. That team, which had an 11-5 regular season, went on to lose 34-28 in Super Bowl LI after leading the game 28-3.

While the Falcons are still in search of the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, the 1998 team is awfully proud of the breakthrough season from 20 years ago.

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