Eighteen years after the only division title in franchise history, the Atlanta Falcons took a giant step Sunday toward winning the NFC West again.
Playing before their first home sellout crowd in three years, the surprising Falcons took sole possession of first place with a 31-19 victory over San Francisco, beating the team that has ruled the division almost every year since 1980.
"It's been a long time coming," said linebacker Jessie Tuggle, who has been with the Falcons for 12 years. "We not only wanted to win this game. We wanted to send a statement to the rest of the league, let everyone know we're for real."
Tuggle scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery, and an interception by Ray Buchanan set up another score, but the outcome was still in doubt until Chris Chandler's 78-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis with 2:51 remaining clinched a landmark victory for Atlanta (8-2).
The 49ers (7-3) have won 13 NFC West titles since 1980 - the year Atlanta captured its only championship - and dominated the Falcons through most of this decade, entering Sunday's game having won five straight in the series and 11 of 13 since '91.
"A lot of us who've been around here for a while have been on the downside of these games," Mathis said. "We've weathered the storm and now we're on top."
The 49ers won the first meeting against Atlanta this season, building a 31-7 lead and cruising to a 31-20 victory at 3Com Park. But this was a different Falcons team.
"We got outplayed today," linebacker Lee Woodall said. "They lived up to the hype."
Second-year coach Dan Reeves has turned things around in Atlanta, which was evident from the aroma of hamburgers and hot dogs wafting through the parking lot hours before the game began. Yes, they were actually tailgating outside the Georgia Dome.
| Atlanta's Ray Buchanan intercepts a pass intended for 49ers' tight end Greg Clark. Buchanan returned it to the 1-yard line, setting up a TD from Jamal Anderson. (AP) |
"It was exciting with this crowd here today, because the difference between winning and losing in this league is so small and they can make the difference," Reeves said.
The raucous turnout of 69,828 watched the Falcons build a 24-6 lead in the fourth quarter, then give up two long touchdown passes by Steve Young that closed the 49ers to 24-19 with 3:09 remaining.
The fans grew uneasy, sensing a monumental collapse by the Falcons, who needed a couple of first downs to run out the clock. Instead, Atlanta went for a touchdown.
On second-and-8 from the Falcons 22, Chandler went deep to Mathis, who made an over-the-shoulder catch while rookie cornerback R.W. McQuarters stumbled to the turf. Mathis streaked the rest of the way for the clinching score, and the celebration resumed.
"It's hard to run out the clock when they've got eight guys on the line," Chandler said. "It didn't look good anywhere else, so why not take a shot?"
The Falcons were leading 10-6 before they scored two touchdowns in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
The first was set up when Ray Buchanan jumped in front of Young's pass and returned the interception 34 yards to the 1 late in the third period. After an incomplete pass and a 1-yard loss on a run by Jamal Anderson, the quarter ended.
Anderson, rushing for 100 yards on 31 bruising carries to go over 1,000 yards for the season, then powered over from the 2 to push the Falcons' lead to 17-6. Anderson also scored Atlanta's first TD on a 10-yard run in the second quarter.
Two plays after the kickoff, Young was hit by Shane Dronett and lost the ball. Tuggle snatched it away from teammate Chuck Smith and rolled into the end zone for the fifth fumble-recovery TD of Tuggle's career, an NFL record.
The 'Niners didn't fold. Young, 21-of-40 for 342 yards, hooked up with Terrell Owens on a 54-yard touchdown pass with 11:16 remaining, then took advantage of a defensive error by William White.
The Atlanta safety let Jerry Rice get behind him, and Rice cradled the pass and cruised to the 65-yard touchdown that pulled the 'Niners within five points with 3:09 to go.
Rice had 10 receptions for 169 yards, but also dropped a couple of passes, including a sure touchdown pass in the first half, forcing San Francisco to settle for one of two field goals by Wade Richey.
"It's my job to make plays," Rice said. "I let the team down."
© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved