Buchanan had barely been able to contain his enthusiasm on the day before the game as he sat in a downtown Minneapolis brewery sipping Perrier. "I can picture this being a classic game, the best in the NFC since Dallas and San Francisco a few years ago," he said excitedly. (In fact, it might have been the best NFC tide game since the one 17 years ago in which Dwight Clark made the Catch to put the 49ers over the Cowboys.) Buchanan expressed his admiration for Minnesota coach Dennis Green, whose adept leadership inspired the Vikings this season and brought him to the verge of being the first black coach to take a team to the Super Bowl. "To many African-Americans, it'd be the biggest thing to happen since the O.J. Simpson verdict," Buchanan said laughing.
If the Vikes revere Green, the Falcons are equally gaga over Reeves, who became the patriarch of their dysfunctional family before the '97 season. He began a massive cleanup campaign by acquiring new leaders on both sides of the ball: Buchanan, who had spent four years with the Indianapolis Colts, and Chandler, who had had five previous NFL employers. "Last year it felt like we were an expansion team, there were so many new faces," Buchanan said. "I'd go to restaurants around town or talk to people in the locker room, and all I'd hear was what a bunch of a———- the Falcons were. People said guys would come to meetings on Thursday and Friday mornings wearing the same clothes from the night before, smelling like doughnuts and Crown Royal. There were cancers on the team, guys who weren't ready to perform. Dan Reeves cleaned all that up."
Whitfield, who joined Atlanta in '92, says the team "used to be a rambunctious bunch. We had our fun but didn't concentrate too much on football. The word around the league was, once you got the Falcons down a little, that was it. Back then we didn't know how to win. Now it's like we don't know how to lose."
Reeves's overhaul of the roster—he brought in 38 of Atlanta's 53 current players—included an infusion of experienced winners, a point the coach drove home in an emotional team meeting last Friday morning. The players, who had expected an uneventful update on travel plans to Minneapolis, went wild as Reeves opened a box containing more than a dozen championship rings: those from Reeves's three AFC titles as the Broncos' coach and the Super Bowl rings of offensive line coach Art Shell (who collected two as an Oakland Raiders player), Robinson (who earned one as a member of the '96 Green Bay Packers) and others. "Forget about all the hype," Reeves said. "This is what we're trying to attain."
Chandler hardly needed extra motivation. Each time he read a quote from a Vikings player about the importance of shutting down Atlanta's All-Pro running back, Jamal Anderson, Chandler bit his lip and waited for Sunday. His calm during the game was almost unnerving. Said Falcons lineman Dave Widell, an 11th-year veteran who was inactive for Sunday's game, "I've played with some cool customers at quarterback—Mark Brunell, Troy Aikman, John Elway—but this guy is the true Ice Man."
Using a silent cadence triggered by the bobbing of center Robbie Tobeck's head, Chandler and his teammates ignored the noise in the Metrodome—which was bolstered obnoxiously by '80s rock music piped over the loudspeakers—and never got flagged for a false start. Mathis and fellow wideout Tony Martin teamed with Chandler to gash a Minnesota secondary led by hard-hitting cornerback Corey Fuller. The game's longest play was made not by Moss but by Martin, who burned corner-back Jimmy Hitchcock with an outside-inside stutter move and caught a 70-yard pass two minutes into the fourth quarter. That set up a 24-yard field goal by Andersen that cut Minnesota's lead to 27-20. "I picked up that move from watching [former Miami Dolphins wideout] Mark Duper," said Martin, a hero of the San Diego Chargers' upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '94 AFC Championship Game. "I call it the kaboom move." Chandler, who made the fireworks possible, was crushed by defensive end Duane Clemons after releasing the ball.
Nine minutes into overtime, Chandler survived an even bigger hit, a helmet-to-helmet collision with linebacker Dwayne Rudd after he had scrambled six yards to the Minnesota 31. Chandler was woozy as he handed the ball to Anderson (23 carries, 67 yards) three consecutive times to set up third-and-nine from the 21, and he was utterly disoriented when he saw long-snapper Adam Schreiber run onto the field. "I thought, What protection package is this?" Chandler said later. "Then it hit me: We're trying a field goal! I'd better get off the field."
On came Andersen, who is one of the best kickers in NFL history, yet is remembered these days mainly for missing a chip shot against the Jacksonville Jaguars two years ago, facilitating the Jags' shocking run to the AFC Championship Game. This was the 38-year-old Dane's chance to create a new lasting impression, and he seized it as Pamela Anderson would secure a Playboy photo shoot. When time expired, Morten Andersen told Jamal Anderson (confused yet?), "You guys got us to this point, now it's up to me. I'm going to be the difference maker." He was, nailing a field goal that moved Reeves to attempt the Dirty Bird dance with several Atlanta players on the victory podium. The celebration continued on the team's charter flight home, during which players ripped apart their pillows and released enough feathers to cover a flock of geese.
"Morten gets to keep his green card," Chandler had joked as he dressed in a long-empty locker room. The Ice Man was no longer woozy, thanks to a cold shower. Outside the buses were revved up and ready to go to the airport, but Chandler took his time getting dressed. He knew there was no way that plane was flying without him.