Erased Super Bowl XXXIII: Denver Broncos 34 Atlanta Falcons 19
The Denver Broncos entered Super Bowl XXXIII as favorites to become the AFC’s first repeat champions in 19 years. In 1997, the Broncos became just the 2nd Wildcard team to win the Super Bowl, upsetting the heavily favored defending champion Green Bay Packers. In 1998, Denver sought out to prove that their run was no fluke. Once future Hall of Fame Quarterback John Elway decided to return for a 16th season, Denver had the majority of their impact players back and had high expectations. They didn’t disappoint. Denver began the season 13-0, finished 14-2. They had the 2nd highest scoring offense, led by NFL MVP and 2,000 rusher Terrell Davis. Their defense finished 8th in scoring and were stout against the run. In the AFC playoffs, they defeated their two opponents by a combined 61-13. Denver looked poised to repeat.
Awaiting them in the Super Bowl were the upstart Atlanta Falcons. They too had gone 14-2 in 1998, mainly on the strength of a strong rushing attack and an opportunistic defense. Atlanta’s best player was RB Jamal Anderson. While he’s perhaps best remembered for inventing the “Dirty Bird” touchdown dance that came to define the team, he was nearly as good as Terrell Davis in 1998, rushing for 1,846 yards and 14 touchdowns. Journeyman Quarterback Chris Chandler had the best season of his career, averaging an NFL-best 9.6 yards per pass attempt. On defense, the Falcons forced an NFL-high 44 turnovers. While undoubtedly a solid team, the Falcons were considered somewhat of a fluke after being 3-13 in 1996 and 7-9 in 1997. In the playoffs, they defeated the San Francisco 49ers 20-18 and moved on to play the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome in the NFC Championship Game. The 15-1 Vikings were favored by 11 points and expected to easily handle the Falcons. Atlanta trailed for most of the game, but had stayed close. Behind 27-20 with just over 2:00 remaining, Atlanta watched as Vikings K Gary Anderson missed his first field goal of 1998. This sparked the Falcons to drive down the field and tie the game with :57 left. In overtime, Atlanta was able to hold the Vikings on two possessions, before driving and kicking the game winning field goal 6:35 into the extra period. The Atlanta Falcons had scored one of the biggest upsets in NFL history and punched their unlikely ticket to Super Bowl XXXIII.
Despite identical 14-2 records, Denver was seen as a much better team and were established as 7.5 point favorites. However, there were still thoughts that Atlanta could upset the Broncos like they had Minnesota. As the game began, it looked like Atlanta had a chance, as they moved the ball well and took a 3-0 lead. That was as good as it would get for the Falcons. Despite not playing their best, Denver showed themselves to be head-and-shoulders above Atlanta. They ended several successful Falcon drives by forcing turnovers or stopping them on 4th down and short. The Bronco offense controlled the game with MVP Terrell Davis and an intermediate passing game. The back-breaking play came in the form of an 80 touchdown pass off of play action from John Elway to Rod Smith to take a 17-3 lead late in the first half. Denver continued to methodically add to their lead in the second half, eventually ballooning it to 31-6 in the 4th quarter. After two garbage Falcon touchdowns, the slowout finally ended with a 34-19 final. Denver had showed themselves to be one of the greatest teams in history, becoming just the 7th to win back to back championships. John Elway rode off into retirement as the Super Bowl MVP. This was all great for Broncos fans, but for the rest of NFL fans, Super Bowl XXXIII left everyone with an empty feeling. We all knew the Broncos were great, but a golden opportunity was missed to see just how great Denver was. They had won back to back Super Bowls, but we would never know if they actually were the best team of 1998.
The Switch: 1998 Minnesota Vikings for 1998 Atlanta Falcons
As mentioned, the Vikings were upset by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game. It’s not unusual for a number two seed to beat a number one seed in the conference championship, but few number one seeds are like the 1998 Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings had made the playoffs five of the previous six seasons, but appeared to have peaked as a Wildcard-level team. In the 1998 Draft, they got the piece to put them over the top: WR Randy Moss. Upon his arrival in the NFL, Moss made an immediate impact at a level perhaps unseen before or since. He caught an NFL rookie record 17 touchdowns passes – 10 of which were over 40 yards. The matchup problems he created allowed other teammates to flourish as well. Hall of Fame WR Cris Carter had another Pro Bowl season. QB Randall Cunningham, who two years prior was retired working as a television analyst, had his best season as a pro, throwing a franchise record 34 touchdown passes. The Vikings deep vertical passing threat terrified opponents and allowed RB Robert Smith to have his best season yet with 1,478 yards of offense and 16 touchdowns. Their defense was solid, if unspectacular, but had many playmakers including future Hall of Fame defensive lineman John Randle. The Vikings were unstoppable. They went 15-1, losing once on the road by just 3 points, and broke the NFL scoring record with 556 points. Their 260 point scoring differential (an average of 16.2 points per game) was second only to the 1991 Redskins in the Super Bowl era. These Vikings truly were one of the greatest teams of all time.
In the playoffs, they destroyed the 9-7 Arizona Cardinals 41-21 in the Divisional Round. In the NFC Championship game, everyone expected them to make easy work of the Falcons and move on to an epic Super Bowl matchup with the Broncos. Instead, they played sluggish. They committed two turnovers and struggled to hit their signature long passes. Despite this, they controlled most of the game and built a 27-20 4th quarter lead. With 2:07 remaining, they had driven to that Atlanta 21 and attempted a 38 yard game-icing field goal. Kicker Gary Anderson was perfect in his 39 attempts in 1998 and had not missed in his last 46 attempts dating back to the prior season. This time, he missed. The game was not over. You could sense the Vikings deflate and the Falcons rejuvenate. Atlanta quickly tied the game at 27-27 and escaped with a 30-27 overtime victory. The Falcons moved on and one of the greatest teams ever didn’t even get a chance to play in the championship game.
Reality Displacement Index: 1/10
Of all the games that have been discussed in this series, this one is the easiest to change. If Gary Anderson makes his field goal, the Vikings win the NFC Championship game. It certainly is not his fault alone that Minnesota lost, but that was the game changing play. However, if he still misses the field goal, the Vikings defense had numerous opportunities to stop Atlanta from driving 71 yards for the tying score. The best opportunity for Minnesota came with about 1:10 remaining with Atlanta at the Minnesota 16. Falcons QB Chris Chandler threw a pass into heavy coverage that bounced off of Vikings’ CB Corey Fuller’s hands before being nearly intercepted by a diving S Robert Griffith. The Falcons threw the game-tying touchdown pass to Terrence Mathis on the next play.
In overtime, the Vikings won the toss. On their first possession, they quickly moved the ball to their own 42, but could go no further. After forcing a Falcons 3 and out, Minnesota again got near midfield. This time, on 3rd and 10 from their own 39, Randall Cunningham went for the play that had got them to 15-1: the deep bomb to Moss. Cunningham was forced to hold on to the ball a little long due to the Falcons rush, but he was still able to unload from a relatively clean pocket. Moss had run through Atlanta’s zone coverage and had a good yard of separation from S Eugene Robinson. The ball either hung up or was thrown too late. Moss had to adjust to the ball and Robinson was able to lunge and break up the pass at the Atlanta 15 yard line. Moss nearly caught it. Had he, the Vikings win. Instead, they punted, and the Falcons were able to drive 70 yards and kick the game winning field goal. Let’s assume that Gary Anderson misses the field goal, but Cunningham hits the bomb to Moss for a touchdown in overtime, as it would have created one of the best endings in NFL history. The Vikings get their scare, but ultimately win the way they always had in 1998 and move on to meet the Broncos in the best matchup in Super Bowl history.
Improved Super Bowl XXXIII: Broncos vs. Vikings - Evaluating the Matchup
This would have been the best Super Bowl matchup of all time on paper. This would have been the only playoff matchup ever between two teams who scored over 500 points in the regular season. It would be interesting to see who would be favored going into this game. Denver was the defending champions and had NFL MVP Terrell Davis, but the Vikings were the highest scoring team ever and would’ve have been on a 10 game winning streak. I suspect the Vikings would have been a 2 point favorite, as the NFC was still seen as the slightly better conference and Minnesota had twice crushed the team that Denver had barely beat in the prior Super Bowl, Green Bay.
Minnesota had the better all-around rankings, but had a mediocre rushing defense. Terrell Davis would have been able to run the ball quite well on the Viking front. Minnesota’s pass defense also was below average, but they were 6th in the NFL in turnovers forced. John Elway would have had many options including the NFL’s leading tight end Shannon Sharpe. The Broncos would have no trouble scoring. And that’s good for them, because they would need every point they could get. Denver had just the 26th ranked passing defense. DBs Darrien Gordon and Ray Crockett would have been no match for Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Add in former four time 1,000 yard receiver Jake Reed in the slot and 500 yard TE Andrew Glover and Minnesota would have had an answer for anything Denver threw at them. The positive for Denver is that their 3rd ranked rushing defense would have contained Pro Bowl RB Robert Smith. That wouldn’t have bothered the Vikings much. Early on in the season, the whole world figured out that Minnesota just wanted to throw downfield to Moss and still no one could stop it.
All indications are that this would have been one of the wildest shootouts in NFL history. Neither team would be likely to stop the other too often. If Denver could control the clock by getting Terrell Davis on track, the Broncos would be in good shape. Once they got the play action passing going, they could have hit some big plays down the field. However, Minnesota also had a few playmakers in their secondary. That combined with the way John Elway typically played in Super Bowls – at least one interception in each he appeared in, the Vikings should have expected to force a turnover or two. If one of Denver’s wayward passes fell into the hands of Vikings DB Jimmy Hitchcock, things could get bad for the Broncos, as Hitchcock had returned 3 of his 7 interceptions for touchdowns in 1998.
If Denver’s offense made many mistakes, they would be in deep trouble, as their passing defense would have been torched by the multifaceted Vikings passing attack. They could hope for some turnovers, but Minnesota committed the 3rd fewest in 1998, while Denver was just 13th at forcing them. It’s easy to imagine Randy Moss breaking free for one or two long touchdowns and creating opportunities for his other teammates to add some more points. Denver fights valiantly, but ultimately falls short. America gets treated to one of the greatest games of all time. The Broncos go down in history with the 1983 Redskins, 1997 Packers, and 2014 Seahawks as great teams who barely missed being legendary. The 1998 Minnesota Vikings become one of the teams most commonly called the greatest ever, sparking thousands of bar room debates about how they stack up against Lombardi’s Packers, the 1972 Dolphins, Noll’s Steelers, the 1985 Bears, Walsh’s 49ers, and so on. Their highlights would constantly loop on NFL documentaries and Super Bowl pregame shows instead of being largely relegated to the dustbin of history. Minnesota finally has their championship and forever shakes the stigma of being history’s greatest big game choker. It sucks to know all that was lost on a missed field goal. Unless of course you’re a Packer fan.
Minnesota 38 Denver 35
MVP: Randy Moss