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Time Machine: An Ode to Billy Joe


Atlanta Falcons Senior Director of Media Relations Frank Kleha takes a look to the past to find relevance in the Falcons' upcoming game

As old NFC West Division foes for years, the Falcons and 49ers faced each other twice a season until being split up in separate divisions for the 2002 campaign. This week's game marks the 75th meeting between the two clubs — counting postseason — in this series.

It's fitting that the Birds will be wearing their throwback uniforms from 1966 this weekend because they've played the Niners the third-most of any team throughout their history (besides former NFC West partners Saints and Rams) with the series starting in the Falcons' first season in the league.

This series has seen its share of "name" players battle it out, including quarterback Joe Montana, wide receiver Jerry Rice, safety Ronnie Lott, quarterback Steve Young and defensive end Charles Haley on the Niners' sideline and cornerback Deion Sanders, quarterback Chris Miller, wide receiver Andre Rison and linebacker Jessie Tuggle from the Falcons, among others. But it was a couple of little known bit performers that would take the main stage and steal the show during one specific encounter during the 1991 season.

On a cloudy, fall day Nov. 3, 1991 at Fulton County Stadium, some unlikely heroes emerged on both sides.

Miller was injured on a hit after he threw an interception in the middle of the second quarter and could not continue. San Francisco's Young took a vicious blow with 18 seconds remaining in the first half on a scramble and couldn't return to answer the bell in the second half.

So, two backup signal-callers entered the contest and had a profound impact on the outcome of the game.

Trailing 7-0 at halftime, quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver engineered a Falcons comeback. Tolliver pieced together an impressive 18-play, 75-yard drive that culminated with a short 3-yard touchdown toss to Rison to tie the score in the third quarter. A short 29-yard field goal by kicker Norm Johnson put the Birds ahead, 10-7, early in the fourth stanza.

San Francisco second-stringer Steve Bono took over for Young and pulled out some theatrics of his own at the end to put his team in the lead. With 59 ticks remaining, Bono found WR John Taylor on a 30-yard scoring pass on a third down and 21 to give the 49ers a slim, 14-10 advantage and seemingly the win.

It was desperation time for the Birds. After some failed pass attempts, Tolliver faced fourth-and-6 to go with 21 seconds remaining. No problem for the hard-throwing redhead from Texas Tech. Tolliver found Rison for 19 yards before he was pushed out of bounds at the San Francisco 44. After an incompletion moved the clock to nine seconds, it was time for Tolliver to enter Falcons lore.

Taking a shotgun snap, Tolliver launched a pass as far as he could into the 49ers' end zone. In a crowd of seven players, a pair of San Francisco defenders let the ball somehow go right between their arms and into the waiting hands of wide receiver Michael Haynes, who hauled in the game-winner, falling down to claim an improbable 17-14 victory. This was Haynes' first and only catch of the game and completed a sweep of the yearly series for the Falcons.

Tolliver's final-second heave has been dubbed, "Big Ben III," and has a special place in Falcons history and in the annals of this long series with the 49ers.

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