ATLANTA -- A prince and a pauper met in the middle of a 100-yard field yesterday afternoon. When they had finished pounding on each other, the longtime underling had emerged from beneath the boot heel of NFL royalty to remain the only one standing.
And a crowd of 70,262 at the Georgia Dome went nuts.
The Atlanta Falcons, long one of the NFL's doormats, defeated an old nemesis, the San Francisco 49ers, 20-18, to advance to next Sunday's NFC championship game for the first time in the franchise's 33-year history.
The victory left Falcons front-office personnel in tears, and several players ran around the field as if they'd lost their minds.
With Super Bowl XXXIII one victory away, the Falcons (15-2) will play today's Arizona-Minnesota winner.
But after the game, the next opponent didn't matter as much as the last.
San Francisco (13-5) has won five Super Bowls in the last 18 years, advancing 12 times to the NFC title game in that span. Add the fact that San Francisco beat Atlanta 10 of the last 12 times, and it's easy to understand defensive end Lester Archambeau's dramatic statement.
"This is awesome," he said after his team's 10th straight victory and second straight against the 49ers. "Beating the team that has been the bane of our existence is just incredible.
"I think it's fitting that the road to the championship game had to go through San Francisco."
The Falcons looked to be in great shape after taking a 14-0 lead on a 34-yard run by Jamal Anderson (29 carries, 113 yards, two touchdowns) with 3: 12 left in the first half.
But they managed just 90 of their 289 yards after that. Fortunately, the defense, despite allowing 273 yards in the second half, came up with three second-half interceptions to seal Atlanta's 10th straight victory at home.
"We were acting like 21-year-olds out there" after strong safety William White's interception on the final play of the game, said weak-side linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who participated in four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills. "Back in training camp, probably nobody predicted this. We might have said 10-6 [for a record], but nobody predicted this. This is right up there with anything in Buffalo."
Coach Dan Reeves was on the sideline for the first time since undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery on Dec. 14, and it's a good bet his heart rate was up much of the afternoon.
In the end, the keys were exactly those mentioned by Reeves earlier in the week. The Falcons out-rushed the 49ers 136-46 and won the turnover race 3-1 -- partly because San Francisco had to pass a lot more after running back Garrison Hearst, who gained 1,570 yards this season, broke his left leg on the first play of the game.
"What a difference two weeks makes!" Reeves said. "I feel a lot better. I just thought we did the things we needed to do."
After Anderson dived the final 3 yards to finish the 34-yard scoring run, Atlanta had a two-touchdown lead and had out-gained San Francisco 199-61.
From that point, though, tension covered the Dome like the rain outside.
Without Hearst, the 49ers still had Steve Young (23-for-37, 289 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) and receivers Terrell Owens (eight catches, 73 yards) and Jerry Rice (three catches, 63 yards). And they began to make things interesting immediately after Anderson's touchdown.
It began when officials reversed a call giving Atlanta a fumble recovery -- and negated a 45-yard return for a touchdown by Chuck Smith -- giving it back to the 49ers. On the play, Young threw a lateral to running back Terry Kirby, who intended to throw a pass to Rice. Kirby, however, never caught the ball.
As the ball bounded on the artificial turf, Kirby and Atlanta linebacker Henri Crockett dove for it. The ball appeared to squirt out from underneath Kirby and into the arms of Smith, who raced into the end zone before the referees went into a huddle.
"He [Kirby] was touched on the ground when he had possession," referee Jerry Markbreit, working his last game, told a pool reporter at halftime. "The rule is down by contact."
Soon after, Rice scored on a 17-yard pass from Young to complete a seven-play, 82-yard drive, turning what could have been a 21-0 Falcons lead into a 14-7 edge.
Rather than run out the clock, the Falcons -- who had all three timeouts left -- opted to go for more points. On their second play, San Francisco defensive end Charles Haley batted a pass by Chris Chandler (13-for-19, 169 yards), and defensive tackle Junior Bryant intercepted.
A 36-yard Wade Richey field goal as time expired cut the Falcons' lead to 14-10.
Interceptions by White and Eugene Robinson set up a pair of Morten Andersen field goals in the second half.
The second, a 32-yarder that came after an interception and 77-yard return by Robinson, gave Atlanta a 20-10 lead with 10: 33 left in the game.
"Without Garrison, we knew we had to be perfect," Young said. "And I made some mistakes."
San Francisco wasn't finished, though, going 87 yards in 13 plays to score on Young's 8-yard scramble with 2: 57 left. A bad snap on the extra point led to a two-point conversion pass. That left San Francisco a field goal from victory.
"It was kind of like holding your breath at the end," Chandler said. "We didn't do a very good job running out the clock, and I was hoping it wouldn't haunt us."
Thanks in part to Anderson running out of bounds to stop the clock on Atlanta's third-down play, San Francisco had 38 seconds left -- but no timeouts -- when it got the ball at its 4-yard line. The fifth and final play -- as time expired -- was a Hail Mary down the right sideline, intercepted by White.
"I could have got that interception, too," Robinson said. "I was in the pile and Will was next to me. I said, `I love you, man.' He said, `I love you.' It was back and forth, `I love you,' `No, I love you,' `No, I love you.' "
Yesterday, there was a lot of that going around.
Pub Date: 1/10/99