In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com
The Atlanta Falcons stun the Minnesota Vikings in overtime 30-27 to win the NFC Championship Game to advance to their first Super Bowl. The Falcons rallied from a ten-point deficit in the fourth quarter at the Metrodome, as Gary Anderson a 38-yard field goal that would have sealed the win. Meanwhile, Morten Andersen hit for Atlanta from 38 yards to win the game in overtime.
It had been a dream season for the Minnesota Vikings coached by Dennis Green, as they finished 15-1 sparked by a record-breaking rookie season from Randy Moss. The Vikings established a new NFL record by scoring 556 points on the season as Moss had 17 touchdown receptions the most ever for a rookie. This helped Randall Cunningham have the finest season of his career, in a stunning comeback after sitting out the 1996 season, while unable to find a team. In every aspect, the Vikings had a big year with ten Pro-Bowlers, with John Randall starring on defense and Gary Anderson become the first kicker to not miss a field goal or extra point during a season. Anderson’s kicking prowess continued in the playoffs as the Vikings easily defeated the Arizona Cardinals 41-21.
The Atlanta Falcons also had a great season, posting a 14-2 record the best mark in franchise history to win the NFC West. The Falcons were led by the running of Jamal Anderson who had a career year, rushing for 1,846 yards with 16 touchdowns. Also having a big season was Chris Chandler, a journeyman quarterback who had career highs with 3,154 yard and 25 touchdowns. The Falcons special season experienced a bump in the road late in the year when coach Dan Reeves needed to undergo an emergency heart procedure with Defensive Coordinator Rich Brooks serving in his place for two weeks. Reeves was able to return for the postseason as the Falcons slipped by the San Francisco 49ers 20-18 to reach their first ever Conference Championship Game.
The game started well for Atlanta as they took the opening drive 76 yards in 12 plays to take an early 7-0 lead on a five-yard touchdown pass from Chris Chandler to Jamal Anderson, giving him a chance to do the “Dirty Bird Dance”. The Vikings answered back quickly as Randy Moss caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Randal Cunningham, once play after drawing a 30-yard pass interference flag to even the score. The Falcons were able to move the ball again, made the game’s first mistake when Ed McDaniel scooped up a Harold Green fumble at Minnesota 40. The Vikings would take the drive into the second quarter and took the lead with a 29-yard field goal from Gary Anderson who remained perfect on the season. The Vikings would get the ball back quickly as Orlando Thomas stripped O.J. Santiago after he caught a pass from Chandler. Minnesota would quickly make the Falcons pay as they scored another touchdown to take a 17-7 lead on a one-yard run by Cunningham. After a three and out for the Falcons, the Vikings appeared ready to pull away quickly getting the ball down the field, though they were forced to settle for a 35-yard field goal by Anderson after a rare drop by Moss in the end zone. After another three and out by Atlanta, the Vikings attempted to add more points despite having just over a minute left and starting on their own 18. This move ended up backfiring, as Chuck Smith got a strip sack of Randal Cunningham to give the Falcons a sudden scoring chance before the half. A change they would not pass up as Terance Mathis caught a 14-yard pass from Chris Chandler. Though they were down 20-14, the Falcons went into halftime with the momentum.
After their miscue at the end of the first half, allowed the Falcons to get back in the game, the Viking appeared to go into a shell in the third quarter as they stopped looking for the home run play. After failing to score on their first drive, the watched Atlanta draw even closer, a 27-yard field goal by Morten Andersen. It would be the only points that were scored in the third quarter, though Vikings were on a long drive, taking up five and a half minutes when the fourth quarter began. That drive would last 15 plays and go 82 yards and ended with Matthew Hatchette catching a five-yard touchdown pass from Randall Cunningham to give the Vikings a 27-17 lead. Now needing to take chances, Chris Chandler connected with Tony Martin on a 70-yard pass play. However, the Falcons drive stalled as Andersen hit a 24-yard field goal, to make it a one-score game. It stayed a one-score game as the teams traded punts, before a fumble by Cunningham at the Vikings 30, again opened the door for Atlanta. That door would be slammed shut, as the Vikings defense did not allow the Falcons to score as Corey Fuller knocked down a fourth-down pass. Trying to be careful and run off the clock, the Vikings drove deep into Atlanta territory again, getting the Falcons to burn through their timeouts. The Vikings appeared to be on the verge of sealing the game, as Gary Anderson who had not missed an extra point or a field goal all season set up for a 38-yard field goal with just over two minutes left. The kick would sail wide left, stunning the fans at the Metrodome who had expected to see each ball Gary Anderson hit sail through the uprights with ease. With their new life, the Falcons quickly went down the field. The Vikings again had a chance to clinch victory as Robert Griffith dropped an interception. One play later, the Falcons took advantage as Ronnie Harris reeled in a 29-yard pass. The Falcons would go on to cash in the drive to tie the game as Mathis caught a 16-yard pass from Chandler with under a minute left in regulation. The Vikings would play it safe despite having 49 seconds to get into field goal range running out the clock for overtime.
In overtime, the Vikings got the ball first and were unable to do anything, neither were the Falcons on their first possession overtime. Minnesota continued to misfire on their second possession as Randall Cunningham had three straight incompletions, forcing another Mitch Berger punt. Atlanta then took the ball down to the Vikings 21, keyed by a 26-yard reception by O.J. Santiago. This setup Morten Andersen for the kick herd all around the south, as he knocked home a 38-yard field goal, the same distance missed by Gary Anderson to send the Falcons to Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami. The Falcons dream season would come to a harsh end as they were beaten by the Denver Broncos 34-19.