Falcons Are Flying High


The San Francisco 49ers should begin wondering if they will ever win again, for this is how it starts: losing to the Atlanta Falcons, Jerry Rice dropping touchdown passes, Steve Young muttering to himself.

The 49ers are now chasing the Falcons--that’s the long-lost Falcons--in the NFC West division after a 31-19 loss on Sunday before 69,828 in the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons (8-2) hugged each other, jumped for joy and acted like they had never won a big game. Check that, they hadn’t since 1980 when they last won the NFC West.


The Falcons had lost to the 49ers (7-3) by at least two touchdowns 15 times in the past 15 years and came into this game having lost five in a row to San Francisco, but Sunday they never trailed.

Ten minutes after the victory, Falcon running back Jamal Anderson was still dancing in the end zone, flapping his arms, his feet moving in and out, something they call “The Dirty Bird.”

“For years these guys just pushed us around,” said wide receiver Terance Mathis, who caught a 78-yard touchdown pass from Chris Chandler with 2:51 to play to secure the Atlanta victory. “But for one week we’re the king of the hill.”

Maybe longer. The Falcons, winners of 14 of their last 18 games under Coach Dan Reeves and 8-2 for the first time in team history, play the Rams, Lions and Saints--just as the 49ers do--down the stretch.

Atlanta, which has won seven-straight at home, also takes on Indianapolis, Chicago and Miami, while San Francisco, no longer so intimidating, plays New England, Carolina and the New York Giants.

“We’ve arrived for one day,” cautioned Reeves, whose team has won 11 in a row when holding an opponent to less than 20 points. “Tomorrow we have got to come back down to earth. All this win has done for us is get us in position where it’s in our control. Every team we play is capable of beating us.”

That is what is so impressive about the Falcons’ turnaround. A team that was 1-7 to start last season is playing now with the fervor week after week to compete successfully over its head. Reeves took the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowls, and with the exception of John Elway, with similar talent.

Instead of Elway, Reeves has Chandler, “who has surprised me, I admit,” he said, “but who is also as accurate and as smart as any quarterback playing right now.”

Chandler, a journeyman known best for getting hurt more than most quarterbacks, has now thrown a touchdown pass in a team record 21 consecutive games. The Falcons have scored 30 or more points in the last six games under Chandler, and if you can name the third wide receiver on this team, you count Mel Kiper Jr. as one of your friends.

Chandler completed only a dozen passes against the 49ers--and none to any other wide receivers than Tony Martin and Mathis. But he was not intercepted, and with the game in doubt, delivered the knockout throw.

The 49ers, left behind at 24-6 in the fourth quarter, came back with Young connecting with Terrell Owens for a 54-yard touchdown and then one for 65 yards to Rice, who earlier had dropped two passes in the end zone.

The 49ers haven’t had much of a pass defense for the last two years, but with a little more than three minutes to play and a five-point lead, it was expected that the Falcons would use Anderson to run the clock out.

“I felt we had to score some points,” Reeves said. “I didn’t want to run the ball there and risk giving it back to them with a chance to win.”

So on second and eight from the Atlanta 22, Reeves had Chandler take aim at Mathis. If cornerback R.W. McQuarters chose to remain a few yards off Mathis at the line of scrimmage, he would run a sideline pattern. If McQuarters pressed Mathis tightly at the line of scrimmage, Chandler would go deep to him.

“The guy came up to bump Terance, so I just decided to take a shot,” Chandler said. “It was a high percentage pass.”

It was a devastating pass, caught by Mathis--his only reception of the game--and taken all the way to start a wild and noisy celebration by the Falcons’ first sellout crowd in three years.

“The difference between winning and losing in this league is so small and a crowd like that can be the difference,” said Reeves, accustomed to sellout crowds when coaching the Broncos. “The electricity today out there was amazing. We’ve always had good fans; we just need more of them, and there’s plenty of room left on the bandwagon.”

Reeves has something in Atlanta he never had in Denver, a power running back like Anderson, who topped the 100-yard mark for the seventh time this season and the 1,000-yard mark for the thirdconsecutive year.

Anderson controls the game and that’s why the Falcons lead the league in time of possession. He also runs over people as San Francisco safety Merton Hanks learned in the second quarter when he was the only person standing between Anderson and the goal line. Anderson went through for a 10-yard touchdown run to start the scoring, and later went two yards for his 11th touchdown of the season.

The Falcons are 8-0 when Anderson carries the ball at least 20 times, 13-2 during Reeves’ two-year reign, and the team is going to run out of footballs if Anderson--who had 100 yards in 31 carries--is allowed to keep giving the ball to his family after every score.

“We were very upset with the way the first game against San Francisco went,” said Anderson of the 49ers’ 31-20 victory on Sept. 27. “To be honest, we looked forward to this game for some time.”

Most teams should look forward to playing the 49ers these days. The opposition is averaging more than three touchdowns a game against San Francisco’s defense, and its offensive line showed an inability against Green Bay and Atlanta to protect Young.

Young, who missed last Sunday’s victory over Carolina with a stomach muscle pull, turned the game in Atlanta’s favor with a lofted pass across field to tight end Greg Clark, which was easily picked off by Falcon cornerback Ray Buchanan and returned to the 49er one.

Anderson eventually scored to vault the Falcons ahead 17-6, and on the 49ers’ next possession, defensive tackle Shane Dronett sacked Young and forced him to fumble. Atlanta linebacker Jessie Tuggle recovered the ball and rolled into the end zone. The 49ers were playing the way the Falcons used to play.

“Hunger really characterizes this team,” said Atlanta safety Eugene Robinson, who played on the Packers’ Super Bowl team two years ago. “We’ve got guys here who now think they can win, and they are are hungry and they want to eat.”

And who better to chow down on these days than the 49ers.