As I boarded a plane in Jacksonville the week of Super Bowl XXXIII, which was set for Jan. 31, 1999 at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, I was pondering the thought of the Atlanta Falcons’ chances of winning the franchise’s first-ever NFL championship.
Certainly, Dan Reeves’s football team was capable of doing just that. The Falcons were entering the Super Bowl showdown against the Denver Broncos sporting playoff wins over the San Francisco 49ers, 20-18, and then the heavily-favored, 15-1 Minnesota Vikings … Atlanta topping the Vikings in a dramatic 30-27 overtime thriller with Morten Anderson’s 38-yard field goal proving the game-winner. Too, the Falcons were entering Super Sunday with the identical 14-2 1998 regular-season record that the Broncos had posted.
And, without question, Reeves had a bevy of weapons at his disposal. Pro Bowl quarterback Chris Chandler led Atlanta’s offense extremely well, throwing for 3,154 yards and 25 touchdowns with just 12 interceptions. Wide receivers Tony Martin and Terance Mathis provided the team with superb deep threats, each recording over 60 receptions and 1,100 receiving yards, while also combining for 17 touchdowns. And the biggest threat on offense was Pro Bowl running back Jamal Anderson, who rushed for 1,846 yards, caught 27 passes for 319 yards, and scored 16 total touchdowns. Defensively, the Falcons ranked 2nd in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,203), 8th in fewest total yards allowed (5,009), and 4th in fewest points allowed.
So, as I winged south toward Miami I had great anticipation of these “Dirty Birds” bringing a first Super Bowl championship back to Georgia’s capital city.
Of course, at the same time, I knew the Falcons were about to face the supreme challenge in facing a Denver team that was coming in as defending Super Bowl champions … the Broncos having dispatched the Green Bay Packers by 31-24 the year before in the big game, when former Georgia Bulldog running back Terrell Davis captured the MVP award.
And in the recently completed season, the Broncos had come out of the gate with 13 consecutive wins before being handed their first loss by the New York Giants. The Denver offense, under the leadership of 15-year veteran quarterback John Elway and running back Davis, had another outstanding regular season, ranking second in the NFL with 501 points and third in total offense with 6,276 yards. Davis had one of the greatest seasons of any running back in NFL history, rushing for 2,008 yards, catching 25 passes for 217 yards, and scoring 23 touchdowns to earn him both the NFL Most Valuable Player Award and the NFL Offensive Player of the Year Award. That performance, coupled with Elway throwing for 2,806 yards and 22 touchdowns, with only 10 interceptions, gave the Broncos an attack capable of giving any opposing defense fits.
Media Day during the week of the game was the usual circus with thousands of print and electronic media swarming the Falcons and Broncos players and coaches for interviews and any possible inflammatory quotes that might add fuel and fire to the matchup.
And as is usually the case in Super Bowl week, there was controversy cropping up down in ol’ Miami.
Much of the pregame hype was centered around Elway confronting his former coach in Denver, now Falcons head man Dan Reeves. Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan was hurt and angered by Reeves’ pregame assertion that Shanahan and Elway had conspired to have him fired during his stint at Denver. Media coverage also focused on whether or not Elway would retire after the season (which he eventually did).
Then, came an incident that kind of got you thinking that, hey, things might not go right for the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.
On the eve of the game, Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for solicitation of prostitution. While driving alone in a rented car along a downtown Miami street, he approached a female undercover police officer posing as a prostitute and offered $40 for sex. Although he was released from jail and allowed to play in the game, he was widely denounced by the press and fans for the incident. Ironically, on the morning of the day Robinson was arrested for the incident, he had received the Bart Starr Award for his “high moral character.”
With that sort of cloud hanging over the Falcons’ heads, the Super Bowl game the next night didn’t go any better.
Aided by Elway’s 80-yard touchdown pass to receiver Rod Smith, Denver scored 17 consecutive points to build a 17–3 lead in the second quarter, from which Atlanta could not recover as the Broncos went on to de-feather the Dirty Birds by 34-19. At 38 years old Elway became the oldest player, at the time, to be named Super Bowl MVP (Tom Brady became the oldest in 2017 at the age of 39, coincidentally also against the Atlanta Falcons). In the final game of his career, Elway completed 18 of 29 passes for 336 yards with one touchdown and one interception, and also scored a 3-yard rushing touchdown. Elway retired on May 2, 1999, before the following season. Davis ran for 102 yards on 25 carries in the win.
It was also a frustrating night for the Atlanta offense as Chris Chandler was picked off three times by the Denver secondary while passing for just 219 yards and one touchdown. And Jamal Anderson was checked to 96 yards and no touchdowns on 18 carries.
So sure, things could have turned out better for the home state team in the only Super Bowl I covered as a working member of the media. But, all in all, it was still special to be a part of SB XXXIII that day 20 years ago in Miami’s Pro Player Stadium.
Next in Oct. 29 Florida Issue, No. 6, A Gut-Wrenching National Championship Finish