ATLANTA - It was one of those moments that sometimes defines more than a football game: Chris Chandler's determination to fight through the flu will be chronicled in the team's history books and remembered as the catalyst that kept the Atlanta Falcons' faint playoff hopes alive.
The 36-year-old threw for two second half touchdowns passes, and he directed a final-minute drive that ended with Jay Feely's game-winning 52-yard field goal on the last play to beat Buffalo 33-30.
Although he winced between passes and often doubled-over to catch his breath, it proved to be his finest moment in a career that's lasted 14 seasons. He completed 28 of 40 passes for a franchise-record 431 yards.
More important, it gave the Falcons hope for the postseason.
Chandler was on the sidelines to start the second half, but he quickly convinced coach Dan Reeves he was healthy enough to lead the team to victory. So after many of the 43,320 fans at the Georgia Dome booed as Michael Vick exited the huddle before taking a single snap, Chandler not only won back the confidence of the fans one completion at a time, but of his teammates as well.
His touchdown tosses of 68 and 63 yards gave the Falcons a spark in the second half, but the way he led the team during its final drive was spectacular. After Darrick Vaughn returned a kickoff 23 yards to the Falcons 43, Chandler fired completions of 7, 5 and 16 yards - all in the final 42 seconds - to give Feely a chance to win it with one kick.
"It made for a great Christmas," Feely said shortly after his fourth field goal of the afternoon easily cleared the crossbar. "I just wanted a chance. Chris (Mohr, the holder) tells me the same thing every time: just keep your head down and follow through. If I do that, I know I will make the kick."
With it, Atlanta remained alive for the sixth and final wild card spot in the NFC. Tampa Bay can clinch the final berth with a victory over Philadelphia on Jan. 6. But if the Bucs lose their last two games; the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints each lose one of their two remaining games; and the Falcons close out with victories at Miami and St. Louis, Atlanta will qualify for the playoffs.
If the Falcons remain alive in the playoff race to the very end, it will come at the expense of Vick. The first overall pick of this year's draft has sacrificed the playing time he needs to mature for the team's immediate success.
"I've said all along we're going to do the things that give us the best chance to win now," Reeves said.
Chandler broke a 20-year-old record for passing yards. Steve Bartkowski threw for 416 yards against Pittsburgh on Nov. 15, 1981.
After the game, he was still bothered by flu symptoms. He spoke briefly about his health and the winning drive.
"It was Friday around dinner time and all day Saturday," he said of when the illness struck. "I felt better this morning, just some aches. In a way, I really think it helped me concentrate. You really feel like you need to concentrate on the snap. Mentally, I felt a little floaty. I felt sick at times. You're fighting all sorts of things. In one way, it helped me focus on what I was doing."
The Falcons trailed 14-13 at halftime. One of Buffalo's touchdowns came when Chandler was hit by Raion Hill at the goal line and Brandon Spoon caught the loose ball and returned it seven yards for a touchdown.
Atlanta's final drive of the half also ended with an interception. After throwing a 43-yard strike to Brian Kozlowski to the Bills 8-yard line, his pass to Tony Martin was intercepted in the end zone by Nate Clements to trigger a chant for Vick.
Chandler received fluids at halftime. By the time he told Reeves he was ready, Vick had already entered the game. Reeves, however, made the immediate switch.
"I really didn't know if he would be ready in time (to play the second half)," Reeves said. "He said he felt like he could do the things we needed to win the football game."
That apparently included a 63-yard touchdown pass to Martin in the third quarter and a 68-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler in the fourth.
Buffalo rallied with 10 points in the final 3:55 with a 28-yard Shayne Graham field goal and a three-yard touchdown pass from Alex Van Pelt to Eric Moulds. The touchdown came with 48 seconds remaining.
"Jay has a very strong leg, so if we got it to the 30, I felt like he had a shot at it," Chandler said. "I've seen him go 55-yards-plus."
But not with the flu.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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