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1999 Falcons fell short in first dance on the big stage
Like this year, Dirty Birds 1st Super Bowl run came out of nowhere
AP 99013101593
Denver Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith (80) catches an 80-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John Elway as Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson (41) defends in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami on Jan. 31, 1999. - photo by Mark Duncan

Rise Up: You'll find this story and more in The Times' Super Bowl preview section in Sunday's print edition, available at area retail outlets or via home deliveryLatest Falcons Super Bowl news from AP

Super Bowl XXXIII

When: Jan. 31, 1999

Attendance: 74,803

Ticket prices: $325-$400

National anthem performer: Cher

Halftime show: Stevie Wonder, Gloria Estefan

TV viewership: Estimated 1.3 billion worldwide

Ad costs: 30-second TV spots cost $1.6 million

Player shares: $53,000 to Broncos, $32,500 to Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons’ first trip to the Super Bowl 18 years ago was a bit similar to this year’s in that it caught many fans by surprise following a so-so previous season.

And thanks to the “Dirty Bird” end zone dance that caught fans’ fancy, the Falcons indeed partied like it was 1999.

In 1998, the Falcons were coming off a 7-9 season, their first under Coach Dan Reeves, though they finished strong after a 1-7 start. They made only a few key personnel changes in the offseason, adding veteran wide receiver Tony Martin and safety Eugene Robinson.

The team’s unlikely run to a 14-2 regular season, NFC West title and Super Bowl berth was led by journeyman quarterback Chris Chandler, who enjoyed a career season at 33, passing for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns. Cast off by five other teams, each time losing a starting job to younger, high-profile passers, Chandler ran an offense perfectly balanced by 1,800-yard rusher Jamal Anderson and 1,000-yard receivers Martin and Terance Mathis.

But the biggest key to their surge was a revamped defense under veteran coordinator Rich Brooks. Pass rusher Chuck Smith anchored a solid defensive line and pass rush in front of playmaking linebackers Cornelius Bennett and Jessie Tuggle and a ball-hawking secondary led by Robinson and cornerback Ray Buchanan.

The season began modestly with two low-scoring wins over Carolina and Philadelphia, then a loss at San Francisco. The offense then found its legs, pounding the Panthers 51-23 at the Georgia Dome behind Anderson’s 117-yard effort and a 93-yard kickoff return for a score by speedy Tim Dwight, foreshadowing his Super Bowl moment in the sun. They topped 30 points in the next two wins over the Giants and Saints to stand 5-1.

The signature game of the season came around midseason at New England, where they blew out the Patriots 41-10. Smith returned a fumble for a touchdown and tight end O.J. Santiago caught two touchdown passes and debuted the “Dirty Bird” that would become the team’s signature celebration.

The Falcons ran the table from there and finished with nine straight wins, all by a touchdown or more. They clinched their second division title and first since 1980 with a 24-17 win at Detroit in the next-to-last regular season game.

The 14-2 finish earned the Falcons a first-round bye but not homefield advantage; that went to the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings.

Their playoff run began Jan. 9, 1999, at the Georgia Dome, where Anderson rushed for 113 yards and the defense intercepted 49ers quarterback Steve Young for a tight 20-18 victory, avenging one of two regular-season losses.

The win set up a matchup at the Metrodome against the powerful Vikings, led by the dynamic combo of quarterback Randall Cunningham and receiver Randy Moss.

Atlanta spotted the Vikings a 20-7 lead but rallied in the second half, with Chandler hitting Mathis for a 16-yard touchdown with less than a minute left to tie. The Falcons then won in overtime on Morten Andersen’s 38-yard field goal, sending them to their first Super Bowl, set for Jan. 31 at Miami’s Pro Player Stadium.

Reeves’ ninth Super Bowl appearance as a player and coach came against a Denver team he led to three Super Bowls (all losses) in the 1980s behind star quarterback John Elway. The defending Super Bowl champions also went 14-2, led by Elway and former Georgia running back Terrell Davis, and blew out the Dolphins and Jets in the AFC playoffs.

Super Bowl Sunday did not start well for the Falcons when it was learned Robinson, the inspirational veteran leader of the defense, had been arrested in the wee hours in Miami for solicitation of an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute. He got burned again on the field when Elway, who was voted the game’s MVP, found Rod Smith for an 80-yard touchdown pass that put the Broncos up 17-3 late in the second quarter.

The Falcons trailed only 17-6 going into the fourth quarter but an interception of a Chandler pass was returned 58 yards to set up a Bronco touchdown. Elway’s 3-yard scoring run just three minutes later put Denver ahead 31-6.

The Falcons’ lone highlight came when Dwight ran the ensuing kickoff back 94 yards for a touchdown, one of 10 in Super Bowl history. A Chandler-to-Mathis scoring pass with just over two minutes left, the only touchdown by the Falcons’ offense, made the final score 34-19 in what turned out to be the final game of Elway’s Hall of Fame career.

Unfortunately, Atlanta’s Super Bowl glow didn’t carry over into the next season, as the Falcons started 1-6 and fell to 5-11 and missed the playoffs.

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