Falcons Get to the Heart of Matter to Beat 49ers
Less than four weeks ago, he lay on an operating table, his chest cut open, doctors performing quadruple-bypass surgery on him.
He was supposed to avoid stress, conserve energy, stay out of situations that could put undue tension on that heart.
So what in the world was Atlanta Falcon Coach Dan Reeves doing on the sidelines at the Georgia Dome Saturday afternoon? Why was he subjecting himself to the pressure of his team’s first home postseason game in 18 years, a divisional playoff game in which the Falcons beat the San Francisco 49ers, 20-18? How would he hold up when San Francisco quarterback Steve Young put the ball in the air on the final play with the game on the line, a situation that can make the strongest of hearts flutter?
Reeves held up just fine, as it turned. When Atlanta defenders William White and Eugene Robinson each came down with a piece of the ball, White controlling it to enable the Falcons to hold on, Reeves’ heart was beating as strongly as any in a building packed with 70,262 screaming fans.
“I feel a lot better than I have the last two months,” Reeves said. “My heart’s in great shape.”
And so is his team.
Winning the NFC West with a 14-2 record opened some eyes. But advancing to next week’s NFC championship game for the first time in team history against the winner of today’s Minnesota Viking-Arizona Cardinal game by beating perennial powerhouse San Francisco opened some minds that still had trouble accepting the Falcons into the league’s elite.
Nobody could appreciate how far Atlanta has come more than linebacker Jesse Tuggle, a Georgia native who has suffered with the struggling Falcons as a fan and player for a long time.
“Normally after a game, I have no energy, but I’m still pumped up,” Tuggle said in the locker room after the game. “I wanted this so bad. I’ve been here for 12 years. But I have never regretted being here. This town has been good to me. I’ve seen so many people come and go, I wanted to be here when the team turned it around.”
Like so many of his teammates, Tuggle praised his coach first and foremost.
“I was so proud today to play for such a tough guy,” Tuggle said. “To come back after less than four weeks when he could barely breathe was very inspirational. A guy like that is easy to play for.”
Added defensive end Lester Archambeau, “There is nothing that he demands of us that he doesn’t give to us.”
While Reeves’ presence on the sideline may have inflated his team, the first play of the game from scrimmage deflated the opposition.
Young or no Young, the 49ers, owners of the No. 1 rushing offense in the league, knew they were going to have to run. And that meant putting the ball in the hands of their leading rusher, Garrison Hearst (1,570 yards).
That’s just what Young did on the first play. It turned out to be the last play for Hearst.
Heading off left tackle, Hearst picked up seven yards before he was spun around by Atlanta defensive end Chuck Smith. As Hearst went down, his cleats appeared to catch on the artificial turf, bending his left leg so badly he broke it.
That meant Terry Kirby would have to assume Hearst’s role. Except on a punt return in the first quarter, Kirby was kicked in the leg and suffered a bruise that limited his effectiveness.
“If Terry was feeling good,” said 49er Coach Steve Mariucci, “I don’t think it would have been as damaging. He’s a tough guy, but we didn’t know if we could rely on him with the leg the way it was.”
Kirby wound up as the 49ers’ leading rusher, but he finished with only 22 yards on a day when San Francisco totaled 46, the lowest total allowed by Atlanta in a postseason game.
Meanwhile, on the other side, Jamal Anderson, the pride of El Camino Real High in Woodland Hills and the NFL’s second-leading rusher this season with 1,846 yards, had no problem doing his thing.
On a day when he would finish with 113 yards on the ground, Anderson scored the game’s first two touchdowns, one on a two-yard burst, the other on a 34-yard run that culminated with Anderson diving into the end zone after fighting off defensive back Merton Hanks.
It was still 14-0 late in the first half when the Falcons appeared to have come up with a play that boosted them into a 21-0 lead. With a first and 10 at the Atlanta 47-yard line, Young tossed a lateral to Kirby that the 49er running back dropped. He fell on it, as did Falcon linebacker Henri Crockett. Then the ball popped up loose and Smith grabbed it and ran all the way to the 49er end zone.
That brought a roar from the crowd that quickly died when it was ruled that the ball was dead at the point of the fumble, Atlanta gaining possession.
An instant later, the roar was one of boos after the officials changed their ruling and said that the ball was actually dead when Kirby fell on it, allowing the 49ers to maintain possession.
Given new life, San Francisco awoke. Young drove his team down the field and made it into the end zone on a 17-yard pass to Jerry Rice.
Before the half was over, San Francisco had crept to within four points, 14-10, taking advantage of a Junior Bryant interception of a Chris Chandler pass. Wade Richey turned that turnover into three points by kicking a 36-yard field goal on the final play of the half.
A pair of Morten Andersen field goals, from 29 and 32 yards, extended the Atlanta lead to 20-10.
But late in the fourth quarter, Young tightened the score by running the ball in from eight yards. A two-point conversion off a bad snap made it 20-18.
At the end, Young had the ball again, firing from his 26, in search of another last-second game-winner like the one he had thrown the week before against the Green Bay Packers.
But not this time.
This time, the opposition could breathe easy.
Even Dan Reeves.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
The Falcons’ victory over San Francisco was their first playoff win since they defeated New Orleans in 1991. Their postseason record:
Jan. 9, 1999: Atlanta 20, San Francisco 18
Dec. 31, 1995: Green Bay 37, Atlanta 20
Jan. 3, 1992: Washington 24, Atlanta 7
Dec. 28, 1991: Atlanta 27, New Orleans 20
Jan. 9, 1983: Minnesota 30, Atlanta 24
Jan. 4, 1981: Dallas 30, Atlanta 27
Dec. 30, 1978: Dallas 27, Atlanta 20
Dec. 24, 1978: Atlanta 14, Philadelphia 13
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