On the 25-year anniversary of one of the most stunning upsets in NFL Playoff history, we look back at the Falcons win over the Vikings. Photo Credit: NFL on YouTube/Fox Photo Credit: NFL on YouTube/Fox

When football fans woke up on Jan. 17, 1999, most of them certainly expected that by day’s end, the Super Bowl matchup would be set, with the Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings ready to meet each other. The Broncos were the reigning Super Bowl champions and started 13-0 before finishing 14-2. The Vikings, meanwhile, were a 15-1 juggernaut led by a record-setting offense.

Denver, who played against the New York Jets in the second game, struggled for a sizable portion of it. The Broncos trailed 3-0 at halftime and 10-0 in the third quarter. But Denver dominated the rest of the game and came away with a fairly convincing 23-10 win. The win gave the Broncos the chance to defend their title — in a Super Bowl matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. 

So, what went wrong for the Vikings? One answer to that question is a play has gained fame (or infamy for Minnesota fans) and there’s no doubt that it played a big part in the loss. But games are never decided by just one play. So, why did they fall short?

On the 25-year anniversary of one of the biggest upsets in NFL postseason history, we look back at the stunning 30-27 overtime loss to see just what went wrong for the Vikings.

The teams

Atlanta Falcons

When a big upset occurs, one of the big tendencies people tend to have is to dwell on what went wrong for the favored team. We’ll be doing that soon enough. But the reality is that a big part of what went wrong for the Vikings was that they ran into a good opponent. And it’s important to understand how good the Falcons were in 1998.

The Falcons started 5-2, with the two losses coming against the San Francisco 49ers and Jets (two playoff teams), and they didn’t lose again for the remainder of the regular season. During that nine-game winning streak, the Falcons’ average margin of victory was more than 14 points.

Atlanta had a stingy defense. While the pass defense was 23rd of 30 teams in total yards allowed, much of that can be attributed to being up big in a lot of games and facing teams that needed to pass. The Falcons were 20th in yards allowed per attempt and 12th in passer rating against. Against the run, Atlanta was second in both total yards and yards per attempt. The Falcons were also fourth in total points allowed and first in turnovers. 

Offensively, Atlanta also had a formidable passing attack. Quarterback Chris Chandler enjoyed the best season of his career, passing for 3,154 yards and 25 touchdowns while posting a 100.9 passer rating, all career highs. Receivers Tony Martin and Terance Mathis both helped Chandler’s cause, notching 1,181 and 1,136 receiving yards, respectively.

But what really made the Atlanta offense go was the play of the 235-pound bruising running back Jamal Anderson. After topping 1,000 yards in 1996 and 1997, Anderson had a huge 1998, rushing for 1,846 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns, both totals were best in the NFC and second-best in the NFL, trailing only Denver running back (and eventual league MVP), Terrell Davis.

The Falcons were also coached by Dan Reeves. Reeves’ history as a Super Bowl head coach was spotty (and spoiler alert, it would continue to be). The Conference Championship Games, though, were another story. He guided the Broncos to four AFC Championship Games between 1986-1991, winning three of them. 

So, as good as the Vikings were, the Falcons had a team that was well-built to play with them. 

Minnesota Vikings

Dennis Green became Minnesota’s head coach in 1992. From 1992-1997, the Vikings never had a losing season and missed the playoffs only once. Despite that, they felt like also-rans in the NFC. There was a reason for that.

The NFC of that era was completely dominated by the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers. One of those teams represented the NFC in the Super Bowl in every season from 1992-1997. In all but one of those seasons, the NFC Championship Game matched up two of those teams. But while Dallas, San Francisco, and Green Bay all had double-digit win totals and made the playoffs in 1998, they didn’t feel as overpowering as they had in the past.

It’s also notable that the Cowboys, 49ers, Packers and 49ers had very little to do with Minnesota’s struggles. In that 1992-1997 window, the Vikings had a single playoff matchup against both the Cowboys and 49ers and none against the Packers. But they still only won a single playoff game over those years. Minnesota was a good team but seemed to be missing a piece.

In 1998, the Vikings found that piece in rookie wide receiver Randy Moss.

Moss was one of the most athletically gifted players in NFL history, something that was apparent the moment he stepped onto the field for the first time. Few players have ever come close to matching his combination of size and speed. He could run right by defenders, and even if he was double-teamed deep, there was very little fear in throwing it up to up. The worst-case scenario for the Vikings was a jump ball, something Moss was not likely to ever lose. 

Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards with a still-standing rookie record of 17 touchdowns. On the other side of the field was another future Hall of Fame receiver, Cris Carter. Carter caught 78 passes for 1,011 yards with 13 touchdowns. 

Another star in Minnesota’s offense was quarterback Randall Cunningham. Cunningham’s career had largely fizzled, and he was completely out of the NFL in 1996. In 1997, he signed with the Vikings as a quarterback to Brad Johnson. When Johnson got hurt in Week 2 of the 1998 season, Cunningham took over in a big way. He threw for 3,704 yards with 34 touchdowns and 10 interceptions on his way to finishing second in NFL MVP voting to Davis.

Even if opposing defenses could somehow neutralize Cunningham, Carter, and Moss, they had to deal with Minnesota’s solid rushing attack. Robert Smith led the way, rushing for 1,187 yards with six touchdowns. Fellow running back Leroy Hoard added 444 yards and nine rushing touchdowns.

Finally, the Vikings had another weapon in kicker Gary Anderson. Anderson finished the season 35-for-35 on field goal attempts and 59-for-59 on extra points. During Minnesota’s Divisional Round victory over the Arizona Cardinals, he made all five extra points and both field goals he attempted. So, he was as automatic as it came. It was not hard to see why this team scored a then-record 556 points on the season. 

Defensively the Vikings were more vulnerable, but not bad. Minnesota did rank 19th in passing yards allowed. But much like Atlanta, that can be largely attributed to teams having to pass a lot against the Vikings. They were sixth in passer rating allowed. 

The rushing defense, though, was the opposite. Minnesota was 11th in total rushing yards allowed. But again, the big leads the Vikings had throughout the season prevented opponents from running too much. They were 16th in yards per carry allowed. 

Minnesota’s defensive line, while quick, was undersized. The Vikings were vulnerable against teams running between the tackles, something the Tampa Bay Buccaneers exposed during Minnesota’s one regular season loss. Tony Dungy, Tampa’s head coach, was the Vikings defensive coordinator from 1992-1995; he installed the defense and knew its weaknesses. 

The game

Despite being vulnerable to power football, the Vikings actually kept Anderson in check throughout the game. He did score the game’s first touchdown but otherwise had a quiet game. He ran for only 67 yards on 23 carries. Even his touchdown was a reception. If anyone was told before kickoff that those would be Anderson’s numbers, that person would likely have predicted not only a Minnesota win but a blowout. 

There was definite blowout potential as the game wore on. The Falcons did draw first blood with Anderson’s early touchdown, but the Vikings bounced back and held a 20-7 lead late in the first half. But with just over a minute remaining in the second quarter, Cunningham was sacked and fumbled deep in his own territory. The Falcons recovered. One play later, Chandler and Mathis connected for a 14-yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to 20-14. 

The Falcons drew closer on their first offensive possession of the second half when their kicker, Morten Andersen, hit a 27-yard field goal. Minnesota, though, responded well. The Vikings went 82 yards and scored on a five-yard touchdown pass from Cunningham to Matthew Hatchette to take a 27-17 lead early in the fourth quarter. Atlanta quickly responded with a field goal to cut the lead to 27-20. 

After the two teams traded three-and-outs, the Falcons came up with a big play, forcing another fumble from Cunningham in Minnesota territory. But unlike the end of the first half, they were unable to take advantage of the turnover. Atlanta’s Tim Dwight gained six yards on first down, but the Falcons gained no yards over the next two plays. Then, on fourth down, the normally conservative Reeves opted to go for it, eschewing a 41-yard field goal from Andersen. 

The decision backfired. Minnesota’s injury-ravaged defense (more on that shortly) held and forced a turnover on downs. 

The kick

With just over six minutes left and a seven-point lead, the mission was simple for the Vikings’ offense. Ideally, Minnesota would run the rest of the clock out. But short of that, any points would give the Vikings a two-possession lead. Either option would effectively punch Minnesota’s Super Bowl ticket. 

The Vikings moved down the field quickly, picking up three first downs and getting into Anderson’s field goal range. With 2:11 remaining, Cunningham threw an incomplete pass on third down, stalling the drive. But a 38-yard field goal from Minnesota’s perfect kicker was all that stood between the Vikings and an essentially insurmountable 10-point lead. 

Anderson played a draw, moving the ball from his right to left. That’s a fairly common play for right-footed kickers when attempting a field goal from the left hash marks. But he didn’t start his kick at the right upright. His kick started at the left upright and hooked wide.

For the first time since December 1997, Anderson missed a field goal. 

Rest of game

On paper, the Vikings were still in a great position. They held a seven-point lead with just over two minutes left and the Falcons still needed to go 71 yards. But Minnesota had another issue. The defense was beaten up. Five players — including Pro Bowlers John Randle and Ed McDaniel — were either out or playing hurt. Atlanta took full advantage of that. 

The Falcons moved down the field quickly, with a 29-yard completion from Chandler to Ronnie Harris getting them into Minnesota territory. Then, with 49 seconds left, Chandler and Mathis connected on a 16-yard touchdown pass. It was Chandler’s third touchdown pass of the day and Mathis’ second score.

Andersen converted on the PAT to tie the game, stunning the Vikings, their fans and pretty much everyone watching the game. 

If anything, though, Atlanta’s offense might have been a little too efficient. The Vikings had 49 seconds, all three timeouts, a high-powered offense with the NFL’s best deep ball receiver, and a kicker who, despite his earlier miss, was still as good as the league had to offer. 

Cunningham scrambled for seven yards on the first play of the ensuing drive. On the second play, he went deep, trying to find Moss. Moss had gained separation from two Atlanta defenders. But, in what was a theme of the day for the Minnesota offense, the timing was just off. The ball fell out of Moss’ reach. 

Green then got conservative. With 30 seconds remaining and two timeouts left, rather than take one more deep shot, he opted to take a knee, sending the game into overtime. 

The two teams traded punts on the opening possessions of overtime. Facing a third-and-10 on their second possession, the Vikings went big, with Cunningham airing it out to Moss — who was wide open. The ball, though, was underthrown. That gave safety Eugene Robinson time to catch up. Only, Robinson didn’t crash into Moss for a pass interference penalty that underthrown balls so often draw. He kept an eye on the ball the entire time. As it came down, he got his hand up, knocking it away. 

That was the final time that Moss, Cunningham, and the rest of Minnesota’s record-setting offense would be on the field that season. The Falcons moved the ball down the field with little problem. Minnesota’s defense couldn’t even get Atlanta into a third-down situation until Andersen came out to try a game-winning field goal. 

Atlanta was going in the same direction in overtime that Minnesota was going in the fourth quarter. Andersen’s game-winning field goal attempt, like Anderson’s game-sealing attempt, was from 38 yards. The two kicks were from nearly the same spot on the field, with Andersen’s just a little more centered. 

The left-footed kicker started his attempt just inside the left upright and moved it in toward the middle. It drew in, splitting the uprights. The game was over. Atlanta was going to the franchise’s first Super Bowl.

Minnesota was left stunned, adding another postseason disappointment to a franchise whose history was already full of them. 


For the Falcons, the NFC Championship Game was the peak of the 1998 season. Atlanta was handily defeated in the Super Bowl, falling 34-19 to the Broncos in a game that was 34-6 before the Falcons could narrow the gap in garbage time. They wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 2002.

More consistent success would come for Atlanta in future eras. After NFC Championship Game losses in 2004 and 2012, the Falcons returned to the Super Bowl in 2016. Atlanta held a 28-3 lead late in the third quarter of that game. Somehow, though, the Falcons are still looking for their first Super Bowl win. 

The same is true for the Vikings. Minnesota returned to the playoffs in 1999 and even won a game. The Vikings were dropped in the Divisional Round by another high-powered offense, the eventual Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. The Vikings got back to the NFC Championship Game in 2000 but were blown out 41-0 by the New York Giants. 

After a 5-10 start to the 2001 season, Green was relieved of his duties. From 2001-2006, the Vikings made the playoffs only one time. Minnesota returned to the NFC Championship Game in 2009 and 2017, losing both teams.

What went wrong for Minnesota?

While Anderson’s kick came with more than two minutes remaining, we can confidently say that if he had made it, the Vikings would have won the game. Still, saying that Anderson’s miss is why Minnesota lost is oversimplistic. 

The offense was just out of sorts. Defensively, the smaller Vikings’ defense held up well against Atlanta’s powerful rushing attack but couldn’t make the big plays needed. Case in point: the play before the game-tying touchdown pass was another Chandler throw that was deflected. But All-Pro safety Robert Griffith just missed what would have been a game-sealing interception. 

Also, we can’t even say definitively that Anderson’s kick would have been good had it been online. Minnesota’s blocking on the play failed, and two Falcons came close to blocking the kick as it was. Given that they were coming from Anderson’s right — which is where his kick should have started — an on-target kick might have been blocked anyway. 

All things considered, the Vikings were just a little out of sync. Games like that happen to every team throughout the season. When they happen in the playoffs, the result is, more often than not, a loss. The fact that this game was as close as it was is a testament to how talented the Vikings were in 1998. 

About Michael Dixon

About Michael:
-- Writer/editor for thecomeback.com and awfulannouncing.com.
-- Bay Area born and raised, currently living in the Indianapolis area.
-- Twitter:
@mfdixon1985 (personal).
@michaeldixonsports (work).
-- Email: mdixon@thecomeback.com
Send tips, corrections, comments and (respectful) disagreements to that email. Do the same with pizza recommendations, taco recommendations and Seinfeld quotes.