Falcons fly sky high in Tokyo


The Atlanta Falcons made their first ever international game a successful one Sunday as they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 20-9 behind reserve quarterback Tony Graziani’s two touchdown passes in NFL Tokyo 2000 to extend the frustration of “America’s team” to 0-7-1 in international preseason play.

Trying to rebound from a disappointing, injury-plagued 5-11 season, the Falcons looked crisp in posting their second consecutive victory of the preseason, while the Cowboys and new head coach Dave Campo suffered their second exhibition loss of 2000.

Graziani, a five-year veteran from the University of Oregon, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player for his performance. He finished 9-for-14 for 134 yards before a crowd of 42,178 at the Tokyo Dome.

“I’m very happy with the way we played today,” said Graziani. “Hopefully, this will help us on the way to regaining our form of 1998.” The Falcons went to their first Super Bowl at the end of the 1998 season.

After forcing the Falcons to punt on their opening drive, the Cowboys moved 67 yards in 10 plays behind quarterback Troy Aikman and drew first blood with a 27-yard field goal by Rian Lindell with 8:53 left in the first quarter.

Running back Chris Warren gained 14 yards after taking a quick toss from Aikman early in the drive and tight end Jackie Harris kept Dallas moving after hauling in a 19-yard pass over the middle from Aikman, but the drive eventually stalled at the Atlanta 3-yard line.

The Falcons marched down the field after Dallas kicked off and were on the verge of scoring after moving to the Cowboys’ 2-yard line, but quarterback Chris Chandler was intercepted by linebacker Dat Nguyen near the goal line. Nguyen took the pigskin 5 yards, then lateraled the ball to linebacker Darren Hambrick, who took it out to the Dallas 38 before being brought down.

Nguyen said he had a premonition the play was coming.

“It was a play that I knew they like to run near the goal line. They use misdirection with the receivers,” he explained “It was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I just looked up and the ball was there.”

The Cowboys mounted another drive, with the first quarter ending during it, moving deep into Atlanta territory before stalling after a couple of incomplete passes by Aikman. Rookie place-kicker Tim Seder then came on and booted a 28-yard field goal with 10:29 left in the second quarter to put Dallas up 6-0.

Chandler gave way to Graziani in the second quarter and the backup paid dividends quickly, as he drove the Falcons onto the Dallas doorstep, where he hooked up with reserve wideout Brian Finneran on a beautiful 6-yard touchdown pass with four minutes left in the first half.

Finneran beat cornerback Mario Edwards on the play and Graziani took advantage of Finneran’s 196-cm frame by lofting a pass high and to the far side of the end zone that Finneran rose to catch to the delight of the crowd. The touchdown culminated a 10-play, 74-yard drive. Morten Andersen converted the extra point to put the Falcons ahead 7-6.

Randall Cunningham took over for Aikman in the second quarter and maneuvered Dallas back into scoring position, finding wide receiver Wayne McGarity downfield for a 33-yard gain in a drive that ended with the Cowboys going back in front 9-7 on a 45-yard field goal by Lindell with 1:05 left in the half.

Aikman completed 11 of 18 passes on the afternoon for 106 yards.

Atlanta kicked off to open the second half and Dallas return man Michael Wiley romped 49 yards before being stripped by the Falcons’ Maurice Smith. Rookie kicker Jake Arians recovered the ball for Atlanta.

The Falcons capitalized on the turnover with a 43-yard field goal by Arians four minutes into the third quarter that gave them back the lead 10-9.

With 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Atlanta defensive end Pellom McDaniels recovered a fumble on the Dallas 3-yard line after third-string quarterback Paul Justin had the ball jarred loose while being sacked by defensive tackle Shane Dronett.

Smith scored on the first play following the fumble, but the play was nullified by a holding penalty and the Falcons couldn’t put the ball in the end zone, and eventually settled for a 23-yard field goal by Arians that boosted their lead to 13-9.

Japanese NFL Europe player Nachi Abe made the tackle on the ensuing kickoff for the Falcons.

Dallas Neil gained 33 yards on a pass from Graziani midway through the fourth quarter that set up Atlanta’s final score by Smith on an 8-yard swing pass from Graziani with 6:23 left. Smith made a nice move to shake loose a Dallas defender on his way into the end zone. Andersen’s conversion gave the Falcons their final margin of victory.

Cowboys safety Jason Kaiser recovered a fumble by Smith deep in Atlanta territory with just under four minutes left in the game, but fourth-string quarterback Clint Stoerner threw a pass into the end zone on the next play that was picked off by cornerback Anthony Midget.

Despite the loss, Campo was pleased with the performance of his first-team offense.

“I like the way we threw the ball and caught it offensively. You have to like the way Troy utilized all of his weapons.”

Star running backs Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys (sore toe) and Jamal Anderson (sore knee) of the Falcons sat out the game, the 10th NFL preseaon matchup in Tokyo, due to injury.