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03-06-2019, 05:00 AM,
Post: #1
Throwback Thursday Series: A tale of two Andersons and one NFC Championship Game We’re in the dead period of football (you can read about how much I hate this period here) Atlanta Falcons Hoodie , and with it, we don’t have much to talk about except for some speculation here and there.I figured this would be a good time to look back on some moments in Falcons history and maybe relive them while we wait for football to come back.That idea has given rise to a new series of “Throwback Thursday” articles I’m planning on writing throughout the dead period. Each week, we’ll relive and discuss a certain moment in this franchise’s 52-year history.You can find last week’s Throwback Thursday article, about Dan Quinn, here.The 1998 Atlanta Falcons caught lightning in a bottle. Dan Reeves led a Falcons squad which had been mired in mediocrity in the 1990s, though that mediocrity was a serious upgrade over the awful performances of most of the 1980s.The birds made it to the playoffs in the 1991 and 1995 seasons, registering a playoff win in ‘91. Following that ‘95 playoff berth, and a subsequent 37-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers, Atlanta went a combined 10-22 in 1996 and 1997.The team went into the 1998 season, the second year under Reeves, with hopes of getting back to the playoffs, though a division title seemed out of reach with the juggernaut San Francisco 49ers continuing to tower over the NFC West. The Niners had won the West five times in the previous six seasons, and 13 times since 1981 (in 17 years). The Falcons didn’t have a division title to their name since that 1980 season.Business as usual turns into anything butIt looked to be business as usual in terms of San Francisco owning the division in the early stages of the 1998 campaign, when they beat the Falcons by a 31-20 score in week 3 to improve to 3-0.The Falcons, who employed a veteran group led by quarterback Chris Chandler and running back Jamal Anderson, weren’t willing to kowtow to the supremacy of the 49ers, however. Following a week 5 loss to the New York Jets, which dropped their record to 5-2, the birds went on a nine-game winning streak throughout the rest of the regular season, bringing their record to a franchise-best 14-2. Head Coach Dan Reeves wasn’t with the team for the last two regular season games because of heart surgery Customized Atlanta Falcons Jerseys , but he would rejoin his Falcons in the playoffs.QB Chris Chandler earned Pro Bowl honors, throwing to 3154 yards and accounting for a TD/INT ratio of 25/12. The Falcons had a 13-1 record in games started by Chandler, and were 1-1 when he was unavailable.RB Jamal Anderson was both a Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro selection with his 2165 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns. He was the engine that kept this Falcons team churning, and his “dirty bird” touchdown dance still lives on in Atlanta Falcon folklore.WRs Terrance Mathis and Tony Martin each accounted for over 1100 receiving yards and a combined 17 receiving touchdowns.The defense was maybe even more impressive, wreaking havoc on opposing offensive units week in and week out. The starting defensive line accounted for 12 of the team’s league-high 25 forced fumbles, paced by DE Lester Archambeau, who had five FF along with a team-high 10.0 sacks. Chuck Smith accounted for 8.5 of his own sacks along with three forced fumbles.The secondary came away with 18 of the team’s 19 interceptions. They were led by CB Ray Buchanan with seven and FS Eugene Robinson who had four. Both were Pro Bowl selections on the defensive side of the ball along with LB Jessie Tuggle.Atlanta had both the fourth-highest scoring offense and fourth best scoring defense in the NFL over the course of the regular season in 1998. The defense also led the league with 44 takeaways, and the team’s 33:10 minutes of position per game was good for first in the NFL.The playoffsIn literally any other year, Atlanta’s 14-2 record would have been good enough to earn them the top seed in the NFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but that wasn’t the case in ‘98. That honor went to the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings, a team so talented that that one loss was more surprising to see than those 15 wins.The Falcons did have a bye week in the first round, and they hosted and squeaked by the rival 49ers, in the two teams’ third meeting of the season, 20-18. That would set the stage for an NFC Championship game matchup against the Vikings.Minnesota was the heavy favorite to not only rout the Falcons (they were an 11-point favorite according to the Las Vegas line) but also to easily handle whoever they met in the Super Bowl when they inevitably made it there. Their offense averaged 34.8 points per game, the most in NFL history at that point in time. QB Randall Cunningham was a First-Team All-Pro selection. RB Robert Smith was a Pro Bowler. They featured two future Hall of Fame WRs in Chris Carter and Randy Moss, the latter of whom was a First Team All-Pro selection after recording 1313 receiving yards and a jaw-dropping 17 touchdown receptions in his rookie year.The defense wasn’t too shabby either, ranking seventh in the league in terms of points allowed. First-Team All-Pro selection DE John Randle led the unit with 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. LB Ed McDaniel was also a Pro Bowler.The fated NFC Conference Championship GameThe Vikings were overwhelming, and the Falcons did a fantastic job to resist getting overwhelmed in that hostile Minnesota environment. The birds even took an early 7-0 lead courtesy of a 5-yard TD run by the dirty bird, Jamal Anderson. That was quickly countered by a 31-yard TD connection from Cunningham to Moss, however.The game really blew open in the second quarter , and it looked like the Vikings were about to run away with it, the way they had been doing so against opponents all season. Through a pair of field goals and a 1-yard TD rush by the QB, the hosts opened up a 20-7 lead. Cunningham and company looked poised to seal the deal by halftime as they had the ball on their own 18-yard-line with less than two minutes left. Chuck Smith came up with a massive sack and forced fumble on 3rd and 10, however, to give Atlanta the ball back on Minnesota’s 14-yard-line. Terrance Mathis would catch a touchdown shortly afterward, keeping Atlanta in the game. It was 20-14 at halftime.The Vikings did enough to win this game. Leading 27-20, they drove down the field and lined up for a 38-yard game-sealing field goal with 2:07 left in the fourth quarter. Kicks were automatic points for them that season, thanks to Gary Anderson, who was a perfect 35 for 35 on Field Goal attempts and 94 for 94 on all kicks in general in 1998. It was the best season by a kicker ever, and as soon as he ran out onto the field, the nail went into Atlanta’s coffin.It didn’t quite play out the way Vikings (and even Falcons) fans were expecting, however. The pressure of the big moment got to Anderson, and his kick sailed wide left to keep the Falcons within one score. Atlanta was given new life while the Vikings players and fans were left rattled.Against a shell-shocked defense, Chris Chandler led a quick 72-yard drive down the field and capped it off with a game-tying TD pass to Mathis with about a minute left in regulation.In overtime, Atlanta found themselves driving the ball once again, getting into the field goal range of their own kicker named Andersen — the Great Dane, Morten Andersen (yes, I know he has an e instead of an o in his name, but just go with it for the sake of the pun). From 39 yards out, Atlanta’s Andersen had ice in his veins and made a perfect kick to send the Falcons to the Super Bowl and to leave the Vikings asking themselves “what just happened?”The legacyIt was one of the great upsets in NFC Championship history. For all of the suffering we have endured as Atlanta fans Atlanta Falcons T-Shirt , the pain experienced by Minnesota fans is right up there with our’s, and this game was the magnum opus of Minnesota sports heartbreak. I do personally like to look at this game as revenge for the 1991 World Series.Morten Andersen would eventually surpass Gary Anderson’s NFL Field Goal record eight years later, once again as a member of the Atlanta Falcons after a four-year period away from the team which included a brief stint with the Vikings.The Falcons would go on to lose the Super Bowl to John Elway and the Denver Broncos, before subsequently going back to mediocrity in 1999 and beyond, but this magical season, capped off by this magical moment, will never be forgotten here in Atlanta.Expect to see one more of these “Throwback Thursday” articles next week, before the regular season begins.New year, same problems: The Falcons can’t get out of their own way “One game will not defy the work we put in for eight months” is what Dan Quinn reiterated during the post-game press conference. The frustrated head coach was struggling for words when answering questions about the Falcons’ red zone problems. It’s hard to blame him, given what transpired last January. The Falcons’ dreams of getting back to the Super Bowl were dashed from their inability to score in the red zone. They faced the same team eight months later and lost in practically the exact manner. The Falcons scored nine points in five red zone appearances on Thursday night. After going five for 16 in the last four games of the season, the Falcons couldn’t have executed more poorly in the red zone. How a team can move the ball so effectively yet fall apart so emphatically in the most crucial area of the field remains baffling. It raises serious questions about Steve Sarkisian, who was once again the main topic of every conversation. A once-terrifying offense can’t seem to execute when it matters most. Between the frequent penalties and disastrous red zone results, there will be plenty to critique when evaluating the offense.Lack of comfort and inventionYou would think a team without their franchise quarterback and number one wide receiver would falter at some point. Although Nick Foles made his fair share of mistakes, it always seemed like he was able to make enough throws to keep drives moving. Not having Alshon Jeffrey may have limited the offense vertically. What it didn’t affect was their ability to create coverage-breaking plays in giving Foles more high-percentage looks. From Zach Ertz finding space on shallow crosses to Darren Sproles gaining extra yards in the open field, the Eagles were able to pick up solid yardage off mostly underneath passes.On the other side, the Falcons looked as disjointed and predictable as ever. They couldn’t muster up many positive plays off quick passes. Other than one well-designed play fake to Tevin Coleman, the Eagles’ swarming defense shut down every attempted screen. There weren’t many easy access plays for Matt Ryan. While a defense as good as Philadelphia will make you work for every yard, it was staggering to see the Falcons’ variety of explosive weapons not be featured often. The excessive usage of Julio Jones may have led to an impressive stat line. It also converted into a collection of mistakes.Jones caught ten passes on 19 targets. The context behind those incompletions is far greater than most would initially expect. As the Falcons’ dreadful red zone conversion rate continues to be highlighted, they didn’t fare much better on third down. Converting only four of 15 third downs will play a significant role in any defeat. A good majority of their failures came from targeting Jones. The Eagles began reading Ryan’s eyes and pounced on several incoming passes intended for Jones. Ronald Darby broke up two passes on third down from telegraphing the play design and making a perfect break on the ball. Ryan’s lone interception came from targeting Jones on what appeared to be a back-shoulder throw. The Eagles read where the ball was headed once again, as Rasul Douglas closed in to secure another empty red zone trip.As important as it is to make Jones the centerpiece of the offense Atlanta Falcons Hats , the effects of over-relying on him are evident. Jim Schwartz’s defense knew where the ball was going on several plays. Look no further than the final drive. It’s important to utilize Jones in the red zone. To make it a point of emphasis should be encouraged going forward. When a point of emphasis turns into him being the only receiving option, it creates a severely limited offense. That falls on both Sarkisian and Ryan. Lining up Jones in the slot in the red zone is asking for trouble. Not motioning him allows the defense to set up their alignment towards double teaming him. Ryan’s tendency of solely looking in Jones’ direction doesn’t do him any favors either. All of these shortcomings have culminated into Ryan completing one mere pass on 20 attempts to Jones in the last two seasons in the red zone per ESPN Stats and Information. That shocking percentage is going to remain if players like Mohamed Sanu and Austin Hooper aren’t more involved in the red zone.Ryan’s implosionPhiladelphia has never been kind to the former NFL MVP. Excluding a decent performance from the 2012 season, Ryan usually struggles in his home state. Those struggles escalated on Thursday night. He looked jittery from the first drive. That wasn’t entirely shocking against the best front four in the league. Mistakes are going to be made against an elite defense, especially on opening night. What became astounding was Ryan’s ball placement on many of his throws. If he wasn’t throwing high and wide of his intended target, his passes were behind the receiver. That was on full display when Sanu had to make multiple difficult catches to pick up six yards on basic plays designed to get the ball out quickly.Sarkisian will understandably garner most of the criticism, but Ryan’s shocking performance can’t go unnoticed. There were sacks that he could have avoided. Alex Mack bailed him out of nearly committing a turnover, where the normally-astute quarterback stood in the pocket like a statue without showing any awareness. There were also plays that were well-protected and Ryan still decided to leave the pocket. It was bizarre to see such a battle-tested player commit so many unforced errors. Ryan is known for having a strong pocket presence. On a night where everything felt forced and rushed, he was at the centerfold of the Falcons’ downfall.Undisciplined natureAt the height of all the eye-numbing stats, Quinn’s team committed a whopping 15 penalties. A combination of pre-snap errors, unnecessary holds, and carelessness on special teams put the Falcons in poor field position for most of the game. This has been a lingering issue during Quinn’s entire tenure. For a team that preaches playing smart, they are known for committing reckless penalties. Every edge rusher except Derrick Shelby was called for neutral zone infraction or offsides. Ryan Schraeder had two costly penalties, including a bizarre clipping penalty that showed him taking out Fletcher Cox completely away from the play. Time will tell if these penalties were from first game rustiness. Previous history suggests it might be a bigger long-term issue. Super Bowl caliber teams can’t expect to beat fellow contenders by repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. All three units were accountable for the ridiculous amount of penalties. They will need to play smarter going into two upcoming divisional games, where tension is bound to be high.Looking AheadWhat stings the most for the Falcons is losing to a familiar opponent in nearly the same manner. They failed to produce in the red zone. After holding up well for three quarters, the front seven badly wore down and started allowing big gains on the ground. Not being able to get off the field on third down was another frequent issue that ultimately costed them. Not being able to overcome past inadequacies will be tough to digest for the next nine days. It will be on Ryan, Sarkisian, Quinn, and the entire offense to turn eight months of relentless work into positive results.
06-01-2019, 02:53 PM,
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