He threw his small body into a sea of purple and pushed forward with all his might. Then Atlanta Falcons cornerback Ray Buchanan dropped to the turf in pain. Slightly more than four minutes remained in Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings when Buchanan, after tackling running back Robert Smith, felt his left knee buckle and twist. The Falcons' best defensive player clenched his teeth and curled up on his side. Figuratively, his team assumed the same position. Heavily favored Minnesota led 27-20 and had the ball on Atlanta's 29-yard line. With 64,060 fans at the Metrodome screaming for the Vikings to administer the kill shot, Buchanan felt his Super Bowl dreams—and his career-teetering on the brink of extinction.
Damn, I blew out my knee, he thought. It's over. I'm finished. I can't believe this is happening now. He shed a few tears and started to pray. Even Cris Carter, the Minnesota wideout with whom Buchanan had been jawing all afternoon, took his hand and offered words of prayer. Then the Falcons' 5'9", 195-pound All-Pro snapped out of his trance. "No, no, no! I ain't going out like that!" he proclaimed. He got up, limped off the field and shook off the injury, which turned out to be a hyperextension of the knee. One snap later he returned to play a starring role in the close of one of the most stirring NFL playoff games in recent memory, which the Falcons won 30-27 on Morten Andersen's 38-yard field goal after 11 minutes and 52 seconds of sudden-death drama.
To reach its first Super Bowl—and give coach Dan Reeves a shot at his former employers, the Denver Broncos—Atlanta needed every ounce of courage that Buchanan and his teammates could muster The Falcons played the biggest game in their 33-year history with such crispness and cojones that it's hard to believe they were a 1-7 disgrace halfway through last season and a 7-9 afterthought at year's end. When Andersen's kick sailed through the uprights, the field turned to bedlam and Buchanan was one of many Atlanta players moved to tears. In the Metrodome stands, and across much of the football-watching nation, it was so quiet you could hear a chin drop.
"It feels like a miracle," Buchanan said early on Monday morning as he and teammates celebrated back home in a delirious nightclub in the Buckhead section of Atlanta. "This team was dirt. People stepped on us and wiped their feet on the doormat. Now we feel like a bunch of Michael Jordans. You can't kill us, and we'll do whatever it takes to win."
To beat the Vikings, who rolled to a league-best 15-1 record in 1998, the Dirty Birds summoned the scrappiness that produced a 14-2 regular season and helped them outlast their longtime tormentors, the San Francisco 49ers, in the divisional playoff game. Minnesota, which had dominated the NFC with its grace and power, was not used to winning ugly. "It's one thing to beat up on people, but how do you react when someone's finally hitting you back?" said Atlanta defensive end Chuck Smith, who forced one of three fumbles by the Vikings' All-Pro quarterback, Randall Cunningham. "We've been slugging it out all year."
After all the hype about Cunningham and his awesome set of wideouts—Carter and rookie Randy Moss—the game's offensive hero was Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler, who two years ago was an injury-prone journeyman. On Sunday, Chandler completed 27 of 43 passes for 340 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, but he was even better than those numbers suggest. Displaying the cool precision of the heart surgeons who performed a quadruple bypass on Reeves in mid-December, Chandler stitched together the day's three most significant scoring drives: a 12-play, 76-yard touchdown march to start the game; a 71-yard drive in the final two minutes that ended in a 16-yard touchdown pass to wideout Terance Mathis with 49 seconds left in regulation; and the 10-play, 70-yard pilgrimage to Mecca on the Falcons' second overtime possession.
Equally clutch was the Atlanta defense, which by game's end had rattled Cunningham out of his comfort zone, causing the sort of jittery play that had plagued him throughout his long career with the Philadelphia Eagles. After the Vikings took a 20-7 lead late in the first half, the Falcons held them to seven points in their final 10 possessions. "There were times when he looked like the old Randall—when he was trying to win it by himself," said Atlanta safety Eugene Robinson, whose lunging breakup of a Cunningham bomb to Moss at the Falcons' 13 set up Atlanta's game-winning possession.
Still, Minnesota came within inches of icing the game. With 2:11 remaining in regulation and a seven-point lead, and with the Falcons down to one timeout, the Vikings' Gary Anderson lined up for a 38-yard field goal. Anderson hadn't missed a kick since 1997; he had nailed all 39 of his field goal attempts after joining Minnesota in '98, including a 29-yarder and a 35-yarder earlier on Sunday. So, naturally, Anderson pulled this one about a foot to the left. "Once he missed," said Atlanta tackle Bob Whitfield, "you could see the light in everybody's eyes. It was like our fate was now in our hands."
Or was it, more specifically, in Buchanan's hands? The cornerback said that he "felt a little leather" as Anderson's kick whizzed past his outstretched arms. Six plays after hurting his knee, Buchanan had rushed around the right side of the Minnesota line and soared like Internet stock. "If the kick had been on line," Buchanan said, "it probably would have hit me in the face mask."
All day long Buchanan was a Dirty Bird doing dirty work, beginning with his war of words against the ultrareligious Carter. At one point, according to Buchanan, Carter said, "You either gotta be livin' for God or livin' with the devil." Buchanan shot back, "Yo, Cris, come on—I'm trying to talk some football trash here." Buchanan backed up his yapping, holding his own against Carter and Moss. In his most impressive feat, he ended the Vikings' opening overtime possession by going over the back of the 6'4" Moss to bat down a tipped pass.