In 1978, the National Football League expanded not only its regular season from 14 to 16 games, but also its playoff format from eight teams to 10. With the inclusion of one extra playoff team per conference, a game between the two wild card teams would be played one week before the three divisional winners began their postseason.
Thus, the Wild Card playoff round was born and in the very first NFC Wild Card Game the Atlanta Falcons would host the Philadelphia Eagles in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.
The Eagles were making their first postseason appearance since they won the NFL championship back in 1960. Following that season, the Eagles went into freefall as the franchise had only two winning seasons from 1961-75.
After a 4-10 season in 1975, the Eagles hired UCLA head coach Dick Vermeil, whose team had just defeated #1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, to the same position.
By his third season, Vermeil had turned the Eagles into a winner as the team finished with a 9-7 record to clinch one of the two NFC Wild Card spots for the team’s first playoff appearance in 18 years.
While the Eagles were returning to the postseason, the Atlanta Falcons were making their first foray into the playoffs.
Since their inception into the league in 1966, the Falcons had struggled to become a winning franchise.
In their first 11 seasons, the Falcons had eight seasons with a losing record, and six seasons with 10 or more losses.
In 1977, the Falcons hired Rams wide receivers coach Leeman Bennett to become its head coach, who brought along Jerry Glanville to become the team’s defensive coordinator.
Bennett and Glanville installed an aggressive, blitzing scheme that included one play where as many as nine players would blitz the quarterback.
The defense, which became known as the “Grits Blitz” allowed only 142 points through the 14-game season 1977, an average of 9.2 points per game, the lowest in NFL history.
But the team could not overcome its lackluster offense, as the team finished with a 7-7 record and out of the playoffs.
While the “Grits Blitz” took a little bit of dip in the 1978 season, the Falcons, thanks to four wins in the final 10 seconds, finished with a 9-7 record to clinch the first playoff berth in franchise history.
The two teams met on a soggy Christmas Eve in Atlanta in the very first wild card game in NFL history.
The only points of the first half were scored in the first quarter by the Eagles as Falcons punt returner Billy Rychman mishandled a punt, fumbling the ball which was recovered by Eagles special teamer Cleveland Franklin at the Falcons’ 13-yard-line.
Three plays after the fumble, quarterback Ron Jaworski found wide receiver Harold Carmichael for a 13-yard touchdown.
However, the extra point was missed as kicker Mike Michel sailed the kick wide left and the Eagles held a 6-0 lead.
Michel was the substitute Eagles kicker as their regular kicker, Nick Mike-Meyer, injured his ribs five weeks earlier. The missed extra point was the fourth one Michel had missed since he became the Eagles’ kicker.
The score remained 6-0 until the third quarter when the Falcons made another special teams miscue to set up an Eagles touchdown.
A 17-yard punt by Falcons punter John James gave the Eagles good field position at their own 40-yard-line.
Two passes to Charles Smith and a roughing-the-passer penalty put the Eagles at the Falcons’ one-yard-line where running back Wilbert Montgomery would dive in for the touchdown.
Michel’s extra point was partially blocked, but still sailed through the uprights giving the Eagles a 13-0 lead.
Michel had a chance to increase the Eagles’ lead in the third quarter but his 42-yard field goal was no good and the score remained 13-0. It was the first field goal attempt in Michel’s career.
Despite their kicking problems, it appeared the Eagles had this game in that hand as they had held the Falcons offense in check for three quarters.
The Eagles had held the Falcons out of the end zone and forced five turnovers, their final one being an interception by cornerback Bobby Howard with 9:52 left in the fourth quarter.
After the interception, Philadelphia was poised to put the game away as the Eagles drove to the Falcons’ 15-yard-line looking to make it a three-possession game.
That is where the “Grits Blitz” defense struck as the Falcons forced a fumble from fullback Mike Hogan, which was recovered by linebacker Fulton Kuykendoll at the Falcons’ 13-yard-line with 8:16 left in the game.
The Falcons moved to the 26-yard-line where they faced a 2nd-and-10, when perhaps the turning point of the game occurred.
On the play, Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski dropped back and launched a deep pass intended for wide receiver Wallace Francis, who was being covered by Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards, the future head coach.
Both men went up for the ball and both men came down with the ball, but referees awarded possession to Francis and the Falcons, giving them a 49-yard play and the ball at the Eagles’ 25-yard-line.
Vermeil and the Eagles protested that Francis should have been called for offensive pass interference and that Edwards be awarded with an interception, but it was to no avail.
Three plays later, Bartkowski found tight end Jim Mitchell wide open in the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown and with the extra point, the Falcons had trimmed the lead to 13-7 with 4:56 left in regulation.
The Eagles went three-and-out on their next possession and punted the ball back to the Falcons.
Billy Rychman was tackled for a four-yard-loss on the return by Cleveland Franklin, the man who recovered a Rychman fumble to set up Philadelphia’s first touchdown, but Franklin had tackled Rychman by the face mask and was called for a 15-yard face mask penalty, giving Atlanta possession at the Eagles’ 49-yard-line with three minutes remaining.
Five plays later, the Falcons had moved only 12 yards where they faced a critical 3rd-and-10.
That is where Bartkowski launched another deep pass for Francis, who beat Eagles strong safety Randy Logan, who caught the ball at the three-yard-line and stumbled in backwards into the end zone for a dramatic game-tying touchdown.
Falcons kicker Tony Mazetti, who had been cut by the Eagles during the 1978 preseason, came on and kicked the extra point to put Atlanta ahead for the first time in the game, 14-13 with 1:37 left in the game.
Following the Francis touchdown, the Eagles took over at their own 34-yard-line where Jaworski completed four passes, driving the Eagles to the Falcons’ 16-yard-line with 27 seconds to go.
After two incomplete passes, Vermeil decided to go for the field goal, a 33-yard attempt for a man who had been experiencing kicking problems all afternoon.
Michel came on in hopes of making his first career NFL field goal and to give the Eagles their first postseason victory in 18 years.
But like it had been all day for Michel, the kick was no good as his kick sailed wide right, sending the Falcon fans into a frenzy and onto the field with 13 seconds remaining.
After a five-minute delay to get the fans off the field, the Falcons took a knee to run out the clock and come away with a dramatic 14-13 victory for the franchise’s first ever playoff victory.
One week later, the Falcons traveled to Dallas to face the Cowboys and actually held a 20-13 lead at halftime with Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach out of the game.
But Dallas score 14 unanswered points in the second half to come away with a 27-20 victory, eliminating the Falcons out of the playoffs.
The next four years would be up-and-down for the Falcons as Atlanta had losing seasons in 1979 and 1981, and playoff seasons in 1980 and 1982. After the Falcons were eliminated in 1982, head coach Leeman Bennett was fired.
The Eagles recovered from their heartbreaking loss in the 1978 playoffs, to make the playoffs the following three seasons which included a NFC Championship in 1980 and a trip to Super Bowl XV, which Philadelphia lost to the Oakland Raiders 27-10.
Following the 1982 season, Vermeil resigned as head coach of the Eagles due to what called “burnout”.
As for kicker Mike Michel, he was released by the Eagles in the offseason after the loss to the Falcons and never kicked in the NFL again.