It was still dark out when Atlanta Falcons free safety Eugene Robinson arose last Saturday. Kickoff for his team's NFC divisional playoff against the San Francisco 49ers was seven hours away, so Robinson popped a video into his bedroom VCR and climbed back into the sack. What about his wife, Gia? "Not a problem." says Robinson. "She loves football, too."
Robinson screened what was, to him, the football equivalent of a Wes Craven flick: San Francisco's Jan. 3 victory over the Green Bay Packers, in which Niners quarterback Steve Young beat the Packers with a last-second touchdown pass. "I wanted to get a feel for Steve's timing," says Robinson. "I like to lie in bed and let it marinate. I watch for a while, then fall asleep and dream about making plays."
Later that day, with five minutes left in the third quarter, a wide-awake Robinson made the biggest play in the best season in the 33-year history of the Atlanta franchise. Having wrested momentum from the Falcons, the 49ers, down 14-10, were driving for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown. On third-and-nine at the Atlanta 24, Young took a short drop and looked to his left. Robinson, playing the deep middle of the field, knew what was coming next: "I saw him turn his shoulders, and broke on the ball."
Robinson is known among teammates as the Prophet, both for his familiarity with scripture and his extraordinary anticipation. He snagged Young's pass, intended for wide-out Terrell Owens, at the three-yard line and returned it 77 yards, setting up a Falcons field goal and snuffing San Francisco's best chance to get the upper hand in what wound up as a 20-18 Atlanta victory.
On a day when their high-profile offensive teammates mustered just two touchdowns and two field goals, Robinson and his defensive mates were mostly responsible for keeping the Falcons' dream season alive. Yes, Chris Chandler completed 13 of 19 passes, but none was longer than 22 yards, and he did not throw for a touchdown. Yes, Jamal Anderson rushed for 113 yards and both touchdowns, but only 30 of those yards came in the second half. Moreover, his failure to stay inbounds on an unsuccessful fourth-down conversion in the final minute gave the 49ers several extra snaps and an opportunity to get into field goal range. That was not what the doctor ordered for Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, who was back on the sidelines less than a month after undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery.
But the surprise winners of the NFC West survived, which was why Robinson was in the Atlanta locker room shouting, "Who'da thunk it? The Atlanta Falcons, one win from the Super Bowl. Next week [against the Minnesota Vikings] no one will give us a prayer. That's cool. That's great."
The only team to beat Minnesota this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, kept the Vikings' high-scoring offense off the field by running the ball and controlling the clock—the type of game the Falcons can play. What's more, Atlanta's self-styled Bomb Squad defense has allowed an average of just 15.3 points in its last nine games and was also the NFL's second-best against the run this season, which suggests a tough day ahead for Minnesota running back Robert Smith. It seems less likely that Robinson and his fellow defensive backs will contain dynamic receivers Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Randy Moss (page 54), but it would be a mistake to underestimate the Prophet, who after the playoffs is headed for his third Pro Bowl in 14 years and has made a career of surprising people.
A walk-on at Colgate, Robinson went undrafted in 1985. He signed as a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks and made the club by the skin of his teeth. You could say he's done O.K. since then. His 53 career interceptions lead all active players. He makes up for his lack of speed with guile and ball hawking instincts.
Before the '96 season Robinson was traded to Green Bay, where he started and was a key contributor in the Packers' Super Bowl championship season. Then, as now, Robinson was the closest thing in the NFL to a player-coach, lecturing and hectoring younger defensive backs on the fine points of their craft. So apt a pupil was his backup, Darren Sharper, that the Packers decided after last season to make the 34-year-old Robinson their third safety. Robinson, a free agent, wanted to start
Reeves was in the market for a free safety, and after failing to sign his first free-agent choice, Brock Marion, he landed Robinson with a two-year, $3.55 million contract. One of the first things Robinson did in training camp was walk around the locker room showing his new teammates his Super Bowl ring. The idea, he says, was "to make it tangible for the guys." Robinson considers it one of his callings to motivate his teammates. Last week he sought to deflate any residual fear of the 49ers, who had won 11 of their last 14 games against Atlanta, by reminding his teammates of their dominating 31-19 victory over San Francisco in mid-November.