MIAMI -- Jessie Tuggle can remember Christmas Eve 1989 as if it were last week.

That's when the Atlanta Falcons lost to Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions at Fulton County Stadium before only 5,000 fans, many of whom left early."It felt like a practice," the Falcons' middle linebacker said.

"When I think of those people in the stands that day, THIS is for them."

Tuggle means the Super Bowl, of course, and Atlanta is in it, a stunning development for a team that had languished in obscurity for all of its 32 years and finished 3-13 two seasons ago, just as it did in 1989.

The stars in Sunday's game are the defending champion Denver Broncos. They are led by John Elway, whose record fifth start at quarterback in a Super Bowl probably will mark the end of his 16-year, Hall of Fame career.

Elway's counterpart fits the Falcons' supporting-cast image perfectly.

He's Chris Chandler, who has spent 11 seasons on six teams, all but one a loser. But he was brilliant in leading Atlanta to a 14-2 regular-season record and two playoff victories. His quarterback rating of 100.9 was fourth in the NFL, almost eight points better than the fifth-ranked Elway.

The Falcons love the contrast.

At the front of their Super Bowl news release is a page headlined: "The Guys that Nobody Wanted are 16-2." It lists all the players who were cut or undrafted and the coaches who were fired by other teams, most prominently Dan Reeves, who spent 12 years as coach of the Broncos and took them to three Super Bowls, all losses.

Some of the examples of "rejects" are exaggerated.

They include Morten Andersen, one of the best kickers in NFL history, whom the Falcons grabbed when the New Orleans Saints cut him in a salary cap maneuver, and Jamal Anderson, a seventh-round draft choice in 1994, who ran for 1,846 yards this season.

So what? Anderson had two previous 1,000-yard seasons and his Denver counterpart, Terrell Davis, who ran for 2,008 yards and was the league's MVP, was a sixth-round pick in 1995.

But the overall picture is accurate: Many Falcons are castoffs or players like Tuggle, an undrafted free agent who has made five Pro Bowls in 12 seasons but is not well known nationally because he's a Falcon.

They revel in the nickname "Dirty Birds," which they got for the arm-flapping dance popularized by Anderson with help from tight end O.J. Santiago.

"If Dirty Birds are our image that's fine. We are Dirty Birds," said Reeves, who will coach the game only six weeks after quadruple heart bypass surgery.

With all that, the Falcons are underdogs by only a touchdown, fewer points than Green Bay was favored by last year against the Broncos. Denver, 11 1/2-point underdogs, won that game 31-24, breaking the NFC's 13-year winning streak and giving Elway his first Super Bowl ring after three losses.

The spread may be that small because the Falcons got here by beating Minnesota 30-27 in overtime at the Metrodome, where the 15-1 Vikings had appeared unbeatable. Yes, Atlanta needed some luck, such as a missed field goal by the previously perfect Gary Anderson, but it also got brilliantly executed tying and winning drives from Chandler.

The Broncos, on the other hand, did just what they were expected to do.

They started 13-0 and needed only three more wins to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins' perfect regular season.

Then they lost two straight, to the New York Giants and Dolphins.

But they closed the regular season with a win over Seattle, got revenge against Miami with a 38-3 playoff win, then beat the New York Jets 23-10 in the AFC championship game.

The extra week off provided time for what a lot of people thought would be the theme of the Super Bowl: a "who-said-what-to-whom" debate involving a dispute among Reeves, Elway and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.

It was an old feud. Reeves fired Shanahan as his top assistant after the 1991 season and Denver owner Pat Bowlen fired Reeves a year later, reportedly at Elway's urging.

But that battle was fought in sound bites between Atlanta and Denver before the teams even got to Miami. By the time they arrived last Sunday, it already was old news.

"There's an awful lot of wounds. I caused some. They only heal with time," Reeves said. "I apologize that I reopened some more wounds."

Shanahan was more blunt, simply stating that he wouldn't talk about it any more.

So, most of the pregame blather revolved around the Falcons' humble origins.

True, before Atlanta's upset win at Minneapolis, the Super Bowl was expected to be a shootout between Minnesota and Denver.

The Falcons lack the history and glamour of the 49ers, Cowboys and Packers, the NFC representatives for the past six seasons. But nobody -- except perhaps the TV networks -- thinks it's mandatory that San Francisco, Dallas or Green Bay be in every Super Bowl.

Television has to settle for Denver, which has been in five Super Bowls in the past 12 seasons, but has won only once.

The Broncos certainly seem to respect their opponents. Or at least they say so.