In the instant after Morton Andersen’s overtime field goal defeated his Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game, the normally stoic Randall Cunningham fell to his knees. His shoulders sagged as, like a religious supplicant, he dipped his head to the Metrodome turf.
“I’m tired,” Cunningham said in a disappointed hush later on that Sunday, Jan. 17, 1999. “I’m drained. I gave it all I had.”
The Falcons’ improbable 30-27 victory over the Vikings, one of the most dominant regular-season teams in league history, had devastated the reborn 35-year-old quarterback and ended what he realized was likely his last shot at a Super Bowl.
Like the Eagles, their opponents in this Sunday’s NFC championship game at Lincoln Financial Field, the Vikings have never won a Super Bowl. But while they have reached that ultimate game four times, none of those losing Minnesota teams was a match for the one Cunningham led in 1998.
Lured out of a year’s retirement in 1997 by Vikings coach Dennis Green, Cunningham was among a trio of former Philadelphia Eagles – kicker Gary Anderson and wideout Cris Carter were the others — who helped the ’98 Vikings win 15 of 16 games and set a then-NFL record with 556 points.
Taking over when Brad Johnson was hurt in Week 2, Cunningham exhibited the stay-in-the-pocket discipline he lacked in a spectacular and often controversial Eagles career. Gone were the erratic play, the long, graceful gallops downfield, the indecision.
“He plugged into our system effortlessly,” said Brian Billick, the NFL Network analyst who was then Minnesota’s offensive coordinator.
Cunningham threw for 3,704 yards and 34 touchdownss. He had just 10 interceptions and his passer rating was a league-best 106.0.
“I told him, ‘Look, we’ve worked very hard for you to keep within the structure of our offense and to keep the pocket’s integrity,’” Billick recalled. “’But let’s don’t be ridiculous. If you see a chance, don’t pass it up. You’re free to pull it down and go a couple of times if you have to.’ ”
Cunningham, who ran for 942 yards in 1990, had just 132 rushing yards that year. He was happy to comply, to become a robot in such a dynamic offense.
“I’m in a great system,” he told the Inquirer that year. “I just do what I’m triggered to do. They push the buttons and tell me what to do and it’s like, `Wow, this is pretty cool.’ “
There was little need for Cunningham to freelance with the high-powered Vikings, whose only regular-season loss was a three-point defeat at Tampa Bay.
Carter caught 78 passes for 1,011 yards and 12 touchdowns. Rookie Randy Moss was even better – 69 catches for 1,313 yards and 17 TDs. Robert Smith ran for 1,187 yards and six touchdowns. Fellow back Leroy Hoard added nine touchdowns. Anderson led the league with 164 points. Two all-pros, end John Randle and linebacker Ed McDaniels, paced the defense.
“If we had gotten to the Super Bowl and beaten [eventual champion] Denver, I believe we’d have been considered one of the greatest teams in recent NFL history,” Green, who died in 2016, once said.
They didn’t get there, of course, upset as 11-point home favorites by the Falcons in one of the most entertaining and shocking conference championship games ever, one that Cunningham and Anderson would each punctuate with unusual missteps.
Throughout the week before, underdog Atlanta’s Tony Martin had a recurring premonition. Anderson, who had made all 106 field-goal and extra-point tries in 1998, was going to miss at a crucial moment.
The 16-1 Vikings had destroyed Arizona in their playoff opener. And they led the Falcons, 24-17, when with 2 minutes, 7 seconds left, Anderson lined up for a field goal that would make a comeback near impossible.
“When Anderson lined up,” Falcons back Jamaal Anderson said afterward, recalling Martin’s vision, “I said this is the one he’ll miss.”
The 37-yarder was wide left, ending the kicker’s streak at the worst possible time.
On the Vikings sideline, Randle, as if sensing what was to come, sighed, “Oh my God.”
Quarterback Chris Chandler quickly drove Atlanta to the tying touchdown with 57 seconds left. Then, after two incompletions by Cunningham, who fumbled three times, Green had his quarterback take a knee with 24 seconds remaining.
Minnesota won the toss but couldn’t score. Finally, on Atlanta’s second overtime possession, Andersen kicked the game-winner, a 38-yarder.
As the Falcons celebrated with their “Dirty Bird” dance, the Vikings sat stunned at their lockers. Carter wept.
“It was the most devastating loss ever,” Carter said. “I wasn’t sure I even wanted to play anymore. I felt like that was my last shot.”
It was. The 33-year-old future Hall of Famer would never get to a Super Bowl. Neither would Cunningham, who struggled in 1999 and after six starts was released. He played sparingly in two more seasons with Baltimore and Dallas.
“That 1998 was an amazing season,” Cunningham recalled recently. “So the way it ended made it that much harder to swallow. But eventually I realized it must have been God’s plan. He must have kept me out of the Super Bowl for a reason.”
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