ATLANTA, SEPT. 9 -- The only way to explain what happened in Jerry Glanville's first game as the Atlanta Falcons' head coach is to believe that Glanville left tickets at will call for the late Rod Serling. And then Serling came back, picked them up and headed straight for the Twilight Zone.
The Falcons, the worst team in the NFL a year ago, manhandled the Houston Oilers early, then held on for a 47-27 victory before a fever-pitch capacity crowd of 56,222 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. They did it by scoring two touchdowns on controversial fumbles by Warren Moon that the Oilers didn't even bother to chase down, figuring the ball was dead. They did it with three touchdowns in a first quarter that took almost an hour to play, which featured three fights (all instigated by the Falcons), an apparent lightning bolt that blew out the stadium scoreboards for a play and four Houston fumbles.
They did it with a quizzical instant replay reversal of a Houston touchdown reception by rookie Tony Jones late in the third quarter that would have brought the Oilers within three touchdowns.
Most importantly, they did it just as Glanville wanted them to do it, with ferocious gang-tackling, prying fingers that took footballs away and the kind of special teams hitting that makes return men not consider bringing the ball out of the end zone.
"We were blitzing seven guys two out of every three plays," said defensive end Tim Green. "They've got only six blockers. It's risky. But it's Glanville." Glanville quit acrimoniously last winter after five seasons as the Oilers' coach.
In winning their opening game for the first time in four years, the Falcons jumped to a 27-7 halftime lead, then watched Moon throw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes, but it was nowhere near enough. Moon finished with 31 completions in 52 attempts for 397 yards and four touchdowns; Atlanta quarterback Chris Miller was 19 of 30 for 225 yards and a touchdown pass to Andre Rison.
That was as good as the Falcons offense had to be because its defense scored three touchdowns, the last a spectacular 82-yard interception return by Deion Sanders with 13 seconds remaining.
The Falcons were playing before a hockey-style crowd, which cheered almost every one of the team's 16 penalties for 139 yards.
"I just can't express the emotions inside," Glanville said in a 30-second postgame news conference, during which he gave the game ball to SMU Coach Forrest Gregg while taking a dig at new Oilers Coach Jack Pardee for "running up the score" last year on SMU as University of Houston coach.
"That's pretty terrible," Pardee said of Glanville's comments.
That was bizarre, but you won't find two stranger plays than Atlanta's two touchdowns off Houston fumbles within 90 seconds of each other midway through the first quarter.
After rookie running back Steve Broussard scored on a six-yard run for Atlanta's first touchdown, Moon went back to pass on first down at the 20. Atlanta linebacker Aundray Bruce, rushing from the right side, blindsided Moon as he cocked his arm and the ball tumbled loose. It bounced toward defensive end Mike Gann, who tried to pick it up, but couldn't. Linebacker Jessie Tuggle went for it and tripped over Gann's legs. All the while, Houston offensive guard Bruce Matthews simply stood watching, then walked away. He thought the whistle had blown and the play was dead.
But it wasn't. Veteran cornerback Bobby Butler dashed up, tried to pick up the ball and watched it skid into the end zone. So he went after it. No one else even bothered. The Oilers were walking back to the line for second down. But there was no second down. As Butler stood alone in the end zone with the ball, the officials signaled a touchdown. Atlanta led, 14-0, with 6:43 left in the first quarter.
Houston had the ball for two possessions in the next 1 1/2 minutes -- Sanders fumbled a punt return -- before Moon's second fumble.
Moon, stymied by the blitzing Bruce an incredible five times in a row, called a timeout and was so befuddled he simply ran the ball wide on the next play. He was caught along the line by Green for a two-yard loss and appeared in replays to be losing the ball as he went down. Yet the ball ended up underneath him as he lay on the grass when Tuggle reached in, took it away and started running toward the goal line.
After lumbering about 20 yards, with no one giving chase, Tuggle stopped. Green, watching him go, waved to him to keep on running. So Tuggle did. When he reached the end zone, he found he did have someone with him. An official. And the official raised his hands to signal that this, indeed, was another weird touchdown.
The Oilers, desperately trying to get back into the game, trailing by 34-7 in the third quarter, went for it on fourth and 15 from the Atlanta 19 with five minutes left in the quarter.
Moon lofted a strike in the end zone to Jones, who had scored Houston's only other touchdown, a 15-yard reception, late in the second quarter. Jones jumped high -- he's just 5-foot-7 -- and grabbed the ball over his shoulder for the touchdown. But the replay showed him squirming to keep the ball in his hands -- it never hit the ground -- and the replay official took away the touchdown.
The decision was especially important when Houston wide receiver Ernest Givins broke loose for an 80-yard touchdown reception 21 seconds into the fourth quarter, making the score, 37-14. Givins struck again with a six-yard Moon pass with 10:40 to go.