ATLANTA -- The trademarks of the Atlanta Falcons' super season of a year ago -- emotional comebacks, timely turnovers and lucky bounces -- became a memory Sunday afternoon inside the Georgia Dome, replaced with a failed comeback, costly turnovers and a few bad bounces.
The season-opener between the Falcons and the Minnesota Vikings was everything the NFC Championship game wasn't. Big plays in Sunday's game included two pass interference penalties at the Atlanta goal line, a couple of ground games that were grounded and four missed kicks.
Morten Andersen sent Atlanta to Super Bowl XXXIII with a 38-yard field goal in overtime a year ago, but his 39-yard attempt with 3:38 to play wobbled wide left to preserve an ugly 17-14 victory for the Vikings.
Even the Dirty Bird became extinct.
"I think both teams played poorly at times," said the Atlanta kicker, who missed two chip-shot field goals for the first time since the 1996 season. "At least for me, my feedback is immediate. Everyone saw the results of what I did wrong."
And for Minnesota, which could have wrapped up the NFC title a year ago if Gary Anderson's 39-yard field goal was on target in the final two minutes, it was a small bit of payback. Very small.
"The January game is behind us," said Vikings receiver Cris Carter. "This was a good win. It was amazing how similar it was to the last time we played them."
The last time they played, however, Minnesota made the key turnovers that allowed Atlanta to stay alive. Minnesota missed the big kick. This time, it was Atlanta's turn.
Three first half turnovers led to 10 Minnesota points. Both Vikings touchdowns were aided by pass interference calls in or at the endzone. In fact, the biggest plays in both first half touchdowns by Minnesota were penalties -- a 52-yarder in the first drive and a 24-yarder in the second.
The only field goal made by two Hall of Fame-bound kickers came off the right toe of Gary Anderson, and it proved to be the margin of victory. After Anderson's 26-yard attempt in the first quarter was blocked by Shane Dronett, Anderson was good on a 36-yard attempt with 10:23 remaining before halftime.
Anderson had a chance late in the fourth quarter to add to Minnesota's lead from 30 yards, but shanked it to the left.
Morten Andersen had attempts of 35 and 39 yards and he missed them both.
"That was a team effort loss," said Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who was visibly upset with the performance. "Of course I'm disappointed to lose the way we lost. Every phase of the game contributed to it. We missed field goals. The offense lost two fumbles. The kickoff team lost a fumble. And the defense had four penalties for first downs.
"We capitalized on all the mistakes. That's the kind of team we were last year. Now we have to get back to work and do the same things (from a year ago)."
Minnesota, which set an NFC scoring record last year with 556 points, was far from record-setting Sunday. The Vikings had only 299 total yards and they were shut out in the second half.
"If that's the best offense in the NFL, then we're the best defense," said Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking. "I mean, with all the mistakes we made, we still had a chance to win."
Jamal Anderson wasn't a factor for Atlanta. Neither was Robert Smith for the Vikings. Anderson had 50 rushing yards on 16 carries, while Smith had 47 yards on 16 carries. It was so bad, Anderson never flapped his new Dirty Bird dance.
Quarterback Chris Chandler threw for 258 yards and one touchdown, but left with 3:58 remaining when he strained his right hamstring after being sacked. His status for next Monday night's game at Dallas won't be known until mid-week.
"I want to play," Chandler said. "From a team standpoint, I know we have a better chance when I'm out there. So from every standpoint, I want to play desperately (against the Cowboys)."
Turnovers were a problem in the preseason for the Falcons, and the regular season was much the same. Atlanta lost three fumbles in the first half -- one each by Chandler, Ronnie Harris and Tim Dwight -- and the Vikings turned two of them into 10 points.
Chandler threw a 20-yard completion to Harris with 13:54 remaining in the first half, but Orlando Thomas stripped him of the ball at the Vikings' 42 yardline. A 52-yard pass interference call and a defensive holding gave Minnesota the ball at the Falcons' 2, and from there, Cunningham hit Cris Carter on a quick slant for the touchdown. Gary Anderson's point after touchdown kick make it 7-0 with 13:02 remaining before the break.
Dwight fumbled the ensuing kickoff at the Atlanta 21. Six plays later, Gary Anderson kicked a 36-yard field goal to stretch the advantage, 10-0.
Andersen missed a 35-yard field goal on the Falcons' next possession, and Cunningham seized the opportunity by driving his team 74 yards for a touchdown. And like the first scoring drive, the biggest play was a pass interference call that gave Minnesota the ball at the 1-yardline. One play later, Leroy Hoard plowed into the endzone with 1:48 to go before the break to give the Vikings a 17-0 cushion.
Chandler, who threw touchdown passes in the final two minutes of each half in last year's NFC Championship game, gave the Falcons a much-needed lift with an 80-yard drive that ended just before halftime. Chandler hit Chris Calloway on a 20-yard pass, Harris on a 21-yard completion, then Calloway on an 11-yard strike. Two plays later, Calloway caught a 23-yard touchdown pass that gave Atlanta momentum going into the second half.
The Falcons got a 1-yard touchdown run by Bob Christian with 13:18 remaining in the fourth quarter, capping a 10-play, 61-yard drive that included a 17-yard completion to Calloway and a 33-yard pass to tight end O.J. Santiago.
Minnesota's Randall Cunningham completed 22 of 33 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. His ability to stand in the pocket without pressure allowed him to look for second and third receivers.
"We put no pressure on the quarterback," Reeves said. "When you get receivers like they have, you put the defensive backs in a tough position."
All-Pro receiver Randy Moss, who earlier this week said the Vikings were good enough to score 60 points a game, caught three passes for 24 yards. Carter had 7 grabs for 70 yards.
Calloway, a free agent signee during the offseason, easily filled the void created by Tony Martin by catching five passes for 84 yards for Atlanta.
"It's still bitter," Calloway said. "We lost and that's all that matters."
The Falcons, at least for the first week of the season, also seemed to lose the magic that made last season so special. Against the Minnesota Vikings, that mattered a lot.
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