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NFL Classic Rewind: Falcons Get Not One, But Two Last-Seconds Wins over Saints

Posted on November 11, 2011 by A.J. Foss

In 1978, the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints were unlikely contenders for a playoff spot in the NFC as both teams had never made the playoffs in their collective 23 seasons between the two teams.

The two divisional rivals meet twice over a span of 14 days in November 1978 in a pair of last-second finishes that determined both teams’ fates for the 1978 season.

The Falcons entered the first game with the Saints on a four-game winning streak to up their record to 6-4 to put themselves in the hunt for their first playoff berth in franchise history.

Atlanta was led by head coach Leeman Bennett, who was in his second season as the Falcons head coach, and featured a defense that called “The Grits Blitz” which had allowed a NFL-record 129 points in 14 games in Bennett’s first season, only to have the team finish 7-7 because of an offense that only scored 179 points.

While their stats were not that much better in the 1978 season, the Falcons offense with quarterback Steve Bartkowski at the helm was doing enough for the Falcons to win games.

New Orleans also entered their matchup with the Falcons on a winning streak as they had won their previous three games to get back to .500 at 5-5.

Since their inception in 1967, the Saints had never won more than five games in a season and had six seasons of 10 or more losses.

But led by first-year head coach Dick Nolan, who had coached the San Francisco 49ers to three straight NFC West division titles earlier in the decade and the NFC’s top passer in Archie Manning, the Saints had a chance for their first winning season and first playoff berth in team history.

The game was a low-scoring affair for much of the first half as both teams traded field goals as Saints kicker Steve Mike-Mayer made a 21-yard field goal in the first quarter while Falcons kicker Tim Mazzetti drilled one from 22 yards out in the second quarter.

But late in the second quarter the Saints put together back-to-back touchdown drives, the first being a 11-play, 64-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown run by Tony Galbreath to give New Orleans a 10-3 lead.

The key play on that drive had been a Falcons offside penalty on a 4th-and-6 from the Atlanta 38-yard-line that allowed for the Saints to go for the 1st down on 4th-and-1, which they converted.

New Orleans got the ball back with 1:24 left and drove 54 yards in six plays with the touchdown coming courtesy of a Manning pass to tight end Henry Childs from 14 yards out to extend the Saints lead to 17-3 as the two teams went into the halftime break.

After the scoring outbreak in the final minutes of the first half, the game returned to a low scoring affair in the third quarter as the only points were a 32-yard field goal by Mazzetti that cut the Saints lead to 17-6.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Saints were poised to put the game out of reach as they drove to inside the Falcons’ ten-yard-line only to have Manning fumble the ball on a rollout and the Falcons recovering it their own six-yard-line with 13:30 left in the game.

Despite the turnover near the goal line, it still seemed that the Saints were going to win the game as their 11-point lead was still in intact when the Falcons took over possession at their own 20 with 2:23 left on the clock.

That is where Bartkowski led the Falcons on a 12-play drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by Haskel Stanback that brought Atlanta to within four points at 17-13.

With only 57 seconds remaining, the Falcons attempted an onside kick but the Saints recovered it and took over at their own 49-yard-line.

The Saints ran the ball three straight times and gained eight yards to face a 4th-and-2 from the Atlanta 43-yard-line.

Instead of punting the ball to Atlanta, Nolan decided to run the ball one more time and go for the 1st down on the 4th-and-2.

But when Chuck Muncie was stopped by defensive tackle Jeff Yeates for no gain, the Falcons got the ball back and one last chance to see if they could pull off a miracle victory.

With just 19 seconds left and no timeouts in their pocket, the Falcons called for their desperation “Hail Mary” pass which was titled in the playbook “Big Ben Right”.

Saints quarterback Archie Manning played in the two games against the Falcons, but was unable to lead his team to victory in either contest.

“Big Ben” called for three wide receivers to line up on the right side of the field and run downfield where Bartkowski would throw a pass as far as he could in hopes of one of the receivers tipping the ball up in air and that another receiver would catch it.

Bartkowski took the snap and dropped back a few yards to launch a pass that came down around the Saints’ 20-yard-line where it was tipped by wide receiver Wallace Francis and then caught by Alfred Jackson, who then ran in the last 10 yards untouched for the shocking touchdown with 10 seconds left.

With Mazzetti’s successful extra point, the Falcons had come away with a 20-17 victory to stun the Saints and the 70,000 fans at the Louisiana Superdome.

Falcons fans were so excited by the miracle win that a crowd of 3,500 fans greeted the team at Hartsfield International Airport when the team came back from New Orleans.

The Saints did not have to wait long to avenge this bitter defeat as the rematch took place only two weeks later in Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium after both teams had been defeated the week before.

The Falcons got the ball to start the game and drove 61 yards in nine plays for a touchdown, a 3-yard run by Stanback, which put Atlanta ahead 7-0, just 4:21 into the game.

Then on the Saints’ first offensive play, defensive tackle Wilson Faumuina intercepted a Manning screen pass and returned it to the New Orleans 17, giving the Falcons a chance for another score.

The Saints defense did not permit a 1st down and force a 27-yard field goal attempt from Mazzetti, which he missed to keep the score at 7-0.

Two plays after the missed field goal, Manning connected with Larry Hardy on a short pass, who then took to the end zone for a 71-yard touchdown that tied the game at 7-7.

The score was still tied 7-7 midway through the second quarter when Saints punter Tom Blanchard could not handle the snap and was tackled by Falcons special teamer Lewis Gilbert to give Atlanta the ball at the New Orleans 19-yard-line.

However, three plays netted a loss of two yards and the Falcons had to settle for the field goal, a 39-yarder by Mazzetti that put Atlanta back in the lead at 10-7, only to have the Saints take their first lead of the game with 1:53 left in the first half on a 28-yard touchdown run by Chuck Muncie for a 14-10 lead.

Just like their game in New Orleans two weeks earlier, the defenses took over in the third quarter as the Saints got the only points of the third quarter with an 18-yard field goal by Mike-Mayer to extend their lead to 17-10.

The Falcons could not trim the lead for much of the second half as they drove to inside the Saints’ 20-yard-line twice, only to come with zero points as the Saints’ defense forced a fumble and intercepted a Bartkowski pass to end the scoring threats by Atlanta.

Still behind with 10:20 left in the fourth quarter, the Falcons took over at their own 16-yard-line and drove 73 yards in 14 plays until they were faced with a 4th-and-2 from the Saints’ 11-yard-line.

Despite the home crowd urging him to go for the 1st down, Bennett went for the field goal and after Mazzetti made his 28-yard field goal, the Falcons trailed 17-13 with 3:07 left in the game.

The Falcons decided against the onside kick and kicked the ball back to New Orleans in hopes of the defense stopping the Saints to get the Atlanta offense the ball with as much as time as possible left on clock.

The Saints made one 1st down and were able to bleed over two minutes off the clock before they punted it away to the Falcons, who took over at their own 28-yard-line with 53 seconds left and no timeouts in their pocket.

Bartkowski went to the no-huddle offense and after completing three out of four passes, he had the Falcons at the Saints’ 34-yard-line with 23 seconds remaining.

Steve Bartkowski threw the game-winning touchdown passes in both Falcons' wins over the Saints.

That is when Bartkowski decided to take a shot for the end zone and appeared to have connected with Jackson on another game-winning touchdown as the rookie wide receiver was wide open in the end zone, only to have him drop the sure touchdown.

Jackson came back on the very next play with a nine-yard reception to set up a 3rd-and-1 from the 25-yard-line and 16 seconds left on the clock when Bartkowski took another shot for the end zone

Bartkowski launched a pass toward the left corner of the end zone where his receivers, Dennis Pearson and Bill Ryckman, were waiting along with three Saints defenders.

As the ball came down, the players got together in a scrum and when it was all said and done, Saints defensive back Ralph McGill had come away with the interception seemingly to send the game into overtime.

But a flag was thrown by official Grover Klemmer and after taking to the rest of his crew, the referees called for Saints defensive back Maurice Spencer for pass interference, giving the Falcons a 1st-and-goal from the one-yard-line with 10 seconds to go.

With new found life, Bartkowski took the snap, rolled out to his right, and found tight end Jim Mitchell wide open in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with five seconds to go, which gave Atlanta another 20-17 victory over the Saints.

The two last-second wins by the Falcons proved to be the difference between Atlanta and the Saints when it came to a playoff spot as the Falcons finished the season 9-7 while New Orleans finished 7-9.

The Falcons meet the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Wild Card Game and defeated the Eagles 14-13, thanks to two touchdown passes from Bartkowski in the final minutes of the game.

Atlanta’s dream season would come to an end the following week as they fell to the Dallas Cowboys 27-20 in the NFC Divisional Playoffs.

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