MINNEAPOLIS -- Dennis Green has had enough of America's Teams.
"People have to get used to the idea that Dallas, Green Bay and San Francisco aren't playing in this game," he said as his Minnesota Vikings prepared to take on the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game Sunday. "These two teams are here because they deserve it."But that might take some getting used to. The fans won't be getting Steve Young, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman and other established superstars.
Instead, in the Vikings, they'll see a team that scored an NFL record 556 points. It also might be the first good look for many at rookie receiver Randy Moss -- perhaps the next Jerry Rice.
They'll also see the gritty but relatively faceless Falcons, who went 14-2 in the regular season and disposed of the haughty 49ers both as champions of the NFC West and in a playoff game last week.
Still, these are teams whose prominent moments in NFL history are negative ones.
The Vikings were last in this game in the strike season of 1987 and before that in 1976, the last gasp of a good but not great team featuring Fran Tarkenton and a defense known as the Purple People Eaters. Minnesota went to four Super Bowls in eight years -- and lost them all.
The Falcons have had almost no history, not even in Atlanta, where they have traditionally been eclipsed by the University of Georgia ("How 'bout them Dawgs?") and more recently by baseball's Braves.
In fact, entering this season, the Falcons' regular-season record was 184-294-5. They have appeared in just seven playoff games, winning two.
But they finished last season, Dan Reeves' first as head coach, with six wins in eight games.
Now they've won 21 of 25, including a 31-19 win over San Francisco in the regular season and a 20-18 playoff victory over the 49ers. That was with Reeves on the sidelines less than four weeks after undergoing quadruple heart bypass surgery.
"It's really exciting to be a part of this for the city of Atlanta and particularly the fans," said running back Jamal Anderson, pointing to the Braves baseball cap he was wearing. "I really like it when I'm out and I see people wearing Falcons clothes and hats.
"I don't even have a Falcons hat but it's all Atlanta so it all works."
Anderson is the typical Falcon.
He was a seventh-round draft choice when he came out of Utah in 1994, and was barely noticed until this season even though he ran for more than 1,000 yards in both 1996 and 1997.
But in 1998, he set an NFL record with 410 carries. His 1,846 yards was the ninth-best mark in NFL history, putting him in company with Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson.
Anderson also has left an indelible impression, energizing Atlanta fans with his "Dirty Bird" arm-flapping dance after touchdowns.
"I went to college at Entertainment 101," said Anderson, whose father, James, was a bodyguard for celebrities such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson and Magic Johnson. "You've got to have fun."
Many of the other key Falcons have similar stories.
Quarterback Chris Chandler, in his 11th season, with his sixth team, is in the playoffs for the first time. Linebacker Jessie Tuggle, a 12-year standout at middle linebacker, was an undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State. Wide receivers Terance Mathis and Tony Martin -- each with more than 1,000 yards -- were castoffs.
The Vikings have nine Pro Bowlers, including offensive linemen Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy.
But the skill players -- led by Randall Cunningham -- have made this season for the Vikings. The 35-year-old quarterback has revived his career after sitting out the 1996 season.
This plateau is new to Cunningham despite 11 seasons as scrambling one-man highlight reel in Philadelphia that had as many downs as ups.
"I'm very different now," said Cunningham, now a pocket passer.
With targets like Moss, Cris Carter, Jake Reed and Andrew Glover, and running backs like Robert Smith and Leroy Hoard, he leads an offense that might be the best in NFL history.
That means the Falcons will try to exploit a good but not great Minnesota defense.
The way to do it is with ball control. Tampa Bay, the only team to beat the Vikings, ran for 246 yards and kept the ball for more than 33 minutes.
Even though they led the NFL in time of possession at 33:10, the Falcons will have problems with the noise at the Metrodome, some of it artificially generated.
Reeves has already tried to get the NFL to mute it after watching some of the best teams taken out of their games. Green Bay had five illegal procedure penalties on one touchdown drive in a 28-14 loss Nov. 20.
And if Atlanta takes eight minutes to score, the Vikings can come back in three.
"If you throw deep, generally you complete three of 10 passes and that's not great," said offensive coordinator Brian Billick. "When we go deep, we average four completions and two pass interference calls. That's 60 percent, and we'll take that."
If they get 60 percent Sunday, they're probably going to Miami for the Super Bowl.