For nearly ten years, the Atlanta Falcons had been mired in an existential crisis. Since making it to three playoff appearances over five seasons from 1978-82, they had missed eight straight postseason appearances since. When head coach Jerry Glanville arrived in 1990 to transform another moribund franchise – Houston Oilers into playoff regulars – his regime began bearing fruit as early as 1991 with their successful playoff run and appearance.
Offensive coordinator June Jones had an excellent reputation for developing Atlanta’s passing game with his run and shoot offense, which contributed to its success this season. Chris Miller earned Pro Bowl recognition despite experiencing several concussions throughout the season; his play led to a Pro Bowl selection; Michael Haynes recorded over 1,100 receiving yards, while Mike Pritchard caught 50 balls himself as the third receiver.
Atlanta was strong up front, led by tackles Mike Kenn and Chris Hinton – each having earned twelve Pro Bowl selections during their careers. Guard Bill Fralic had long been one of the NFL’s premier performers since appearing as recently as the late 1980s.
Steve Broussard, Mike Rozier and Erric Pegram saw time as running backs on the Falcons team. Defensively, however, they ranked 20th out of a 28-team league. Deion Sanders made his Pro Bowl debut as both an athletic corner and dynamic kick returner at 24 years old – two roles later earning him Hall-of-Famer status.
1991 started off poorly for Atlanta on offense. They traveled to Kansas City and were soundly defeated 14-3 by playoff-bound Chiefs, with Miller throwing four interceptions. They showed some improvement at home against Minnesota, with George Thomas and Pritchard combining to catch 16 passes for over 200 yards but ultimately falling 20-19.
At San Diego, Broussard ran for 101 yards while Rison caught seven balls for 95 yards as the Falcons secured their first win 13-10 against an underwhelming opponent. Once back home, they hosted the Los Angeles Raiders, who were coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game two seasons prior and once more headed towards postseason play this year.
Miller made mistakes again, throwing three interceptions, but the defense had an answer for that as Jessie Tuggle from Valdosta State had a Pick-6 that started the scoring and ultimately lead them to victory 21-17.
New Orleans started 1991 on an impressive streak, and Atlanta couldn’t stop them. They were hammered 170-33 on the ground as New Orleans won 27-6; Atlanta fell to 2-3 before they went into their bye week facing San Francisco just two weeks away.
Atlanta was ready for what appeared to be an essential game, proving themselves worthy in a high-scoring win against San Francisco that kept them alive in contention for the playoffs. Broussard ran for 104 yards while Miller handled the football skillfully, winning 4-zip in a turnover battle. Tim McKyer wreaked havoc against former 49er teammates with two interceptions for good measure en route to defeat. This win kept them alive!
At lowly Phoenix, Miller turned in an unimpressive performance – being intercepted four times during a 16-10 loss – before rebounding strongly at home against the Los Angeles Rams, going 14/19 for 237 yards, three touchdowns, and no mistakes during an easy 31-14 victory.
Glanville saw his trip to Washington as a huge mistake–the Redskins were dominant and routed his Falcons 56-17, allowing Glanville to go deeper in his quarterback depth chart by giving some garbage-time snaps to someone he despised and wanted out in trade during the offseason. That person would eventually become Brett Favre.
Atlanta was 5-5 at that point – respectable by any measure given their history – yet that wasn’t enough in an NFC that saw eight teams win at least ten games. After their debacle against Washington, however, Atlanta found new energy.
Miller connected with Rison twice for touchdown passes during their home victory against Tampa Bay, leading them 33-zip by halftime and eventually winning 43-7. They paid a Sunday Night visit to New Orleans, and Haynes had an incredible night catching six balls for 187 yards, including a game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter – pushing it all the way into overtime, where kicker Norm Johnson ultimately secured it 23-20 with a 50-yard field goal kick.
Atlanta struggled in their home game against an underperforming Green Bay Packers squad, falling into an early 21-7 hole at halftime before rallying back with Joe Fishback’s fumble return for a touchdown and Miller’s subsequent pass to Rison for another score that delivered their 35-31 win. Atlanta continued their winning streak by outshouting Los Angeles 31-7, where Haynes caught six passes for 112 yards.
The four-game win streak had put them firmly in charge of their division race and within reach of playoff contention.
Atlanta hosted Seattle and made two critical defensive plays – Brian Jordan with a sack-for-safety and Deion with a Pick-6 interception – that helped seal their 26-13 victory, guaranteeing at least a wild-card spot despite Saints keeping pace in the division via Monday Night win, although only one game behind in total records, their losses against Atlanta would leave San Francisco home for playoffs.
Dallas was all that stood between Atlanta and their NFC West title and home playoff game. Miller put together an excellent performance, throwing for 325 yards, while Atlanta forced four turnovers while only committing one. Unfortunately for Atlanta, though, they were defeated both on the ground – giving up 163 rush yards – and special teams, where Dallas scored an unanswered touchdown that led to their 31-27 defeat.
Atlanta knew they would play New Orleans in the opening round, and after the Saints won in Phoenix later in the day, their matchup would take place in Louisiana’s Bayou region. Atlanta then headed out as six-point underdogs for a late Saturday afternoon kickoff.
After an inauspicious start, both teams stepped it up as the game progressed. A roughing the punter call kept New Orleans’ drive alive and ultimately resulted in a touchdown; New Orleans added another field goal for a 10-0 lead – but Deion stopped another drive with an interception in the end zone; eventually, though, the Falcons found their rhythm.
Miller connected with Rison for a 24-yard touchdown in the second quarter before both teams traded field goals, sending it into halftime at 13-10. Miller returned in the third quarter with an impressive 20-yard pass, giving the Falcons their first lead.
Atlanta’s run defense issues surfaced again towards the end of the third and early fourth quarters. An 80-yard touchdown drive by New Orleans consumed 19 plays and over 11 minutes, leaving Atlanta trailing 20-17 before Miller drove them for a tie field goal before getting it back with under three minutes remaining in regulation play.
On his 39-yard line, Miller found Haynes on a short slant pass. Haynes caught it and continued running towards the goal line until scoring the winning touchdown – capping off an incredible day where Haynes caught six passes for 144 yards while Miller completed 18 of 30 passes for 291 yards and three scores.
Bobby Herbert made one more mistake than Miller; Hebert had two interceptions picked off, including by McKyer when the Saints attempted to tie the game at 35-yard line of Falcon Stadium.
Atlanta earned another trip to Washington D.C. against the Redskins following its win, though things didn’t go quite as poorly as the last time they went to Washington; heavy rainfall made RFK Stadium more forgiving for underdogs such as Atlanta; scoring was kept scoreless until midway through. Unfortunately, they couldn’t stop the run and gave away six times before losing 24-7.
The Falcons run and shoot offense was hurt by the rain, and the lack of a run game was telling. Mike Rozier was the Falcons’ best back, but he had been suspended for the game by Glanville for missing the team plane, and then he also missed the 10:30 team curfew.
After the game, Rozier made up a story that he had been out until 3 a.m. with MC Hammer, but that was untrue as Hammer was actually with Sanders and Rison until 10::15.
Remarkably, 1991 still offered plenty of hope after its conclusion, but history demonstrated otherwise. Favre would later join the Packers and usher in an unprecedented era for that franchise; Glanville’s Falcons promptly finished 6-10 both seasons thereafter despite 1991 being an exceptional season that unfortunately could not live up to expectations.
The 1991 Falcons may have been a flash in a pan, but they were a fun team that electrified the NFL during the 1991 season, they really were too legit to quit!
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