NFL

19 years ago, a shocking gaffe sent the Falcons to their last Super Bowl

Sometimes the sum of the journey is a greater thrill than the final destination.

Such was the case for the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, who had a wild ride to Super Bowl XXXIII before being upended by John Elway and the Denver Broncos, 34-19, in Miami on Jan. 31, 1999.

The Dirty Birds were the word back then -- as they are today, heading into next weekend's Super Bowl LI matchup against the New England Patriots (6:30 p.m. Feb. 5, FOX) -- but they were not enough to stop the Broncos in what proved to be a final coronation for Elway, who was 18-of-29 for 336 yards in his last NFL game, including an 80-yard touchdown pass to Rod Smith.

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Denver rolled to a 17-3 lead in the second quarter, and the result was never in doubt after that.

There were greater memories for the Falcons before they fell to the Broncos.

Atlanta was 14-2 during the 1998 regular season. It didn't have many stars -- Chris Chandler was the starting quarterback -- but it managed to earn a berth in the Super Bowl by stunning the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.

The Falcons overcame a scary period during which coach Dan Reeves was hospitalized in Week 15 for coronary issues that required quadruple bypass surgery.

The coach came back -- against doctors' orders -- for a Week 17 game against the Miami Dolphins, and the Falcons posted a 38-16 victory over the Dolphins to close out the regular season.

Their first playoff game was a 20-18 thriller over the San Francisco 49ers, setting the stage for the NFC Championship game in Minnesota against the Vikings and their record-setting offense led by Randall Cunningham and Randy Moss.

The game is best remembered for Gary Anderson missing a 39-yard field goal with 2:07 left in the fourth quarter and Minnesota leading, 27-20. The reason that was so startling was the Vikings' kicker had made all 35 of his field-goal attempts and all 59 of his PAT attempts in the regular season.

After a Falcons touchdown sent the game into overtime, the other kicking Andersen -- Morten -- booted a 38-yard game-winner that sent Atlanta to the Super Bowl.

This was on the front page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution the day after the game:

"We shocked the world! We shocked the world!" Jerome Francis shouted, doing the Dirty Bird along with everyone else in his friend's living room.

Mickey White skipped through Barnacle's Restaurant in Norcross yelling, "We're going to Miami! We're going to Miami!" Then he broke into a slow flap and sang: "I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky …"

The Falcons may not have a Super Bowl title -- yet -- but 1998 was a memorable high point for a franchise that will try to get one next Sunday.