The Atlanta Falcons had been in a funk for nearly a decade. After making the playoffs three times in the five-year period from 1978-82, they had been shut out of the postseason eight straight times. Head coach Jerry Glanville, who had turned a similarly moribund Houston Oilers franchise into a playoff perennial, came on board in 1990. By the second year, his regime bore fruit—the 1991 Atlanta Falcons made the playoffs and had success when they got there.
Offensive coordinator June Jones had a reputation for creativity in the passing game and that’s what drove Atlanta’s success this year. Chris Miller enjoyed a Pro Bowl year at quarterback, in spite of dealing with concussions on and off through the year. He threw to fellow Pro Bowler Andre Rison. Michael Haynes went over 1,100 yards receiving and Mike Pritchard was a good third receiver, catching 50 balls of his own.
Atlanta was strong up front, with the pocket secured by tackles Mike Kenn and Chris Hinton. In the course of their career, they made twelve Pro Bowls between them. Guard Bill Fralic was nearing the end of his career, but as recently as the late 1980s had been one of the NFL’s best.
The running game saw Steve Broussard, Mike Rozier and Erric Pegram all share time. Defensively, the Falcons were lacking. They only ranked 20th in what was then a 28-team league, but at least they had one of the game’s most electrifying young stars. Deion Sanders was 24-years-old and the future Hall of Famer went to the Pro Bowl as a lockdown corner and dynamic kick returner.
1991 didn’t start out like it would be special and certainly not on offense. Atlanta went to Kansas City and were shut down 14-3 by the playoff-bound Chiefs. Miller threw four interceptions. The offense got a little bit of momentum at home against Minnesota, with George Thomas and Pritchard combining to catch 16 passes for over 200 yards, but the result was still a 20-19 loss.
It was a road game at mediocre San Diego where the tide started to turn. Broussard rushed for 101 yards, Rison caught seven balls for 95 yards and the Falcons got in the W column with a 13-10 win. They came home to host the Los Angeles Raiders, who were fresh off going to the AFC Championship Game in 1990 and would go back to the postseason this year.
Miller again was mistake-prone, throwing three interceptions, but the Atlanta defense had an answer. Jessie Tuggle, a local product at linebacker, who played college ball at nearby Valdosta State, had a Pick-6 that started the scoring and the Falcons pulled out a 21-17 win.
New Orleans was off to a hot start in 1991 and Atlanta was unable to slow the Saints down. The Falcons were pounded on the ground, 170-33 and lost 27-6. They went into the bye week at 2-3 with a road game at San Francisco looming in two weeks.
In a game that looked important at the time and would prove decisive by the time the season was over, Atlanta was ready. Broussard ran for 104 yards. Miller took care of the football and the Falcons won the turnover battle 4-zip. Defensive back Tim McKyer, who had come over from the 49ers, tormented his old team with two interceptions. The 39-34 win kept Atlanta in the hunt.
A disappointing performance followed at lowly Phoenix, with Miller intercepted four times in a 16-10 loss. But the quarterback came back strong at home against the Los Angeles Rams. He went 14/19 for 237 yards, three touchdowns and no mistakes in an easy 31-14 win.
The 49ers were coming back to Atlanta. Prior to 2002, this was a divisional rivalry game. The Falcons, 49ers, Saints and Rams constituted the NFC West, with the South division not yet in existence. The game didn’t start off well—Miller misfired on eight of his first nine passes and left the game. Billy Joe Tolliver came on and played well enough to win a defensive game, throwing a 44-yard touchdown pass to Haynes that secured the 17-14 win.
A road trip to Washington was a wipeout—the Redskins were the best team in football in 1991 and crushed the Falcons 56-17. The game did give Glanville the chance to go one level deeper on his quarterback depth chart—he gave some garbage-time snaps to the third-stringer he despised and would trade during the offseason. A guy named Brett Favre.
The Falcons were 5-5, something that was respectable by the historical standards of this mostly troubled franchise, but it wasn’t enough in a hotly competitive NFC that would see eight teams win at least 10 games. It was off that debacle in Washington, that Atlanta really took off.
Miller threw touchdown passes to Rison in a home win over Tampa Bay, a game the Falcons led 33-zip by halftime and ultimately won 43-7. They made a Sunday Night visit to division-leading New Orleans and got a big night from Haynes, who caught six balls for 187 yards, including a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. That sent the game to overtime, where kicker Norm Johnson won it, 23-20 on a 50-yard field goal .
Atlanta didn’t play well in a home game with a poor Green Bay Packers team, digging themselves a 21-7 hole at halftime. But they rallied to tie it, 28-all, on a fumble return for a touchdown by Joe Fishback. Miller’s subsequent touchdown pass to Rison ultimately delivered the 35-31 win. The winning streak continued in Los Angeles, where Haynes caught six balls for 112 yards in a 31-7 rout of the Rams.
The record was 9-5 and when the Saints lost in San Francisco the same day, it dropped New Orleans into a first-place tie with Atlanta. The Falcons held the tiebreaker. Their four-game win streak had them in control of the division race and on the verge of the playoffs.
Atlanta hosted mediocre Seattle and got a couple of big defensive plays. Brian Jordan came up with a sack for a safety and Deion delivered a Pick-6. The Falcons led 19-0 and won 26-13. The win clinched at least a wild-card berth. The Saints kept pace in the division with a Monday Night win. The 49ers were only a game back at 9-6, but their losses to the Falcons would leave San Francisco at home for the playoffs.
A road trip to playoff-bound Dallas was what stood in the way of an NFC West crown and home playoff game. Miller played well, throwing for 325 yards and Atlanta forced four turnovers, while committing only one. But they were beaten on the ground, giving up 163 rush yards, and on special teams, where the Cowboys scored a touchdown. The Falcons lost 31-27.
Atlanta knew now they were going to play New Orleans in the first round and when the Saints won in Phoenix later in the day it meant the game would be played in the Bayou. The Falcons went on the road as a six-point underdog for the late Saturday afternoon kickoff.
They got off to a slow start. A roughing the punter call kept a Saints drive alive and ended in a touchdown. New Orleans added a field goal. It was 10-0 in the second quarter, but it could have been worse—Deion squelched one drive with an interception in the end zone and the Falcons would eventually find their bearings.
Miller threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Rison in the second quarter and after both teams exchanged field goals, it went to the locker room at 13-10. Miller came out in the third quarter with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Haynes that gave the Falcons their first lead of the day.
Atlanta’s issues with run defense resurfaced in the latter part of the third and early fourth quarters. An 80-yard touchdown drive by New Orleans took 19 plays and consumed nearly 11 minutes of clock. The Falcons were in a 20-17 hole. Miller drove them for a tying field goal and then got the ball back with under three minutes to play.
On his own 39-yard line, Miller found Haynes on a short slant. The receiver caught it…and didn’t stop running until he had the go-ahead touchdown. It capped a day where Haynes caught six passes for 144 yards. Miller went 18/30 for 291 yards and three touchdowns.
Miller also made one fewer mistake then counterpart Bobby Herbert. Miller was intercepted once, while Hebert was picked twice—the last time by McKyer when the Saints had reached the Falcon 35-yard line in their effort to tie the game.
The win got Atlanta a return trip to the nation’s capital to face the Redskins. It didn’t go as badly as the the regular season visit and the heavy rains that pounded RFK Stadium worked to the advantage of the underdog. The game stayed scoreless for a quarter. But the Falcons again could not stop the run and they couldn’t take care of the football, giving it up six times. They lost 24-7.
There was still plenty of reason for optimism after the season. But, as history made all too clear, you would have been better off betting on the third-string quarterback than the head coach. Favre was traded to the Packers and ushered in a new and glorious age for that franchise. Glanville’s Falcons promptly went 6-10 each of the next two years. The season of 1991 was a good one, it just lacked staying power.