The 49ers played their most significant game vs. the Atlanta Falcons ever in the 2013 NFC title game. The two teams were in the NFC West from 1970 through 2001, but in the years of the 49ers dynasty, the Falcons were rarely much of a rival: in the ’80s and ’90s, with the Saints and Falcons both far away and usually not very good, the 49ers’ main divisional rivalry was with the L.A. Rams. This post covers a few dramatic points in the three decades when the 49ers and Falcons were in the same division.
1983: In Atlanta, Steve Bartkowski threw a 47-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson on the final play of the game to give the Falcons a 28-24 win over the 49ers. Video at NFL.com.
1988: The 49ers were stunned by the Falcons in the third game of the season, losing 34-17 at Candlestick. Montana threw three interceptions, one of them returned for a touchdown. The 49ers, after winning the season’s first two games on the road, began a nine-game stretch in which they went 4-5, nearly keeping them out of the playoffs.
1991: The Falcons beat the 49ers in both games, helping keep S.F. out of the playoffs despite a 10-6 record. The Falcons also went 10-6, but made the playoffs instead of the 49ers because of a tie-breaker. Deion Sanders got into a brief fight with, I believe, Jerry Rice in the game at Atlanta (but I could be wrong). The Falcons, with Sanders and Andre Rison, had a new attitude and cockiness, and briefly it looked like the two teams might be rivals well into the ’90s, but the rivalry sputtered because Atlanta went back to sub-.500 seasons in following years.
1998: The two teams played their only playoff game before 2013 after this regular season. A week after Steve Young’s last-second touchdown to Terrell Owens to beat the Packers at Candlestick, the 49ers lost in Atlanta, 20-18, on January 9, 1999. In the next few years, both teams did poorly, and after 2002, when the 49ers and Falcons lost on the road in the division round, it would take until 2011 and 2012 for both of them to make the playoffs.
All of these games are 49er losses, which reflects them usually beating the Falcons during the ’80s and ’90s: the losses are more memorable because they were less frequent. Perhaps the most memorable 49er win over the Falcons before 2013 is the 1990 game in which Jerry Rice caught five touchdowns from Joe Montana, tying the NFL record.