November 12, 2014

1978: “Big Ben Right” Propels Falcons to Stunning Win Over Saints

The Atlanta Falcons had started the 1978 NFL season at 2-4 before embarking on a four-game winning streak that had them up to a 6-4 record as they faced the New Orleans Saints on November 12. Head Coach Leeman Bennett’s team was already known for aggressive defensive play, but now fourth-year QB Steve Bartkowski (pictured at right), who started the season on the bench, was beginning to display a knack for good clutch play while directing an offense full of overachieving performers behind a solid line.

New Orleans, a perennially losing team, was 5-5 and showing signs of improvement under first-year Head Coach Dick Nolan, who had enjoyed some success with the 49ers previously. QB Archie Manning was playing well and had good run support with FB Tony Galbreath and HB Chuck Muncie.

There were 70,323 fans present at the Louisiana Superdome. Neither team was able to put together much offense in the early going, with Steve Mike-Mayer kicking a 21-yard field goal for the Saints to provide the only scoring in the first quarter.

In the second quarter, after Tim Mazzetti booted a 22-yard field goal for Atlanta to tie the score, the Saints drove 64 yards in 11 plays. The series was helped along when New Orleans was able to convert a fourth-and-one situation after the Falcons were penalized for an offside penalty. Tony Galbreath scored on a one-yard touchdown carry and Mike Mayer added the extra point.

With 1:24 remaining in the first half, the Saints took possession and advanced 54 yards in six plays. Archie Manning passed to TE Henry Childs (pictured below) for a 14-yard TD and, with Mike-Mayer’s point after, New Orleans took a 17-3 lead into halftime.

The defenses again dominated in the third quarter, although Mazzetti kicked a 32-yard field goal for the Falcons that narrowed the score to 17-6. Early in the fourth quarter, a promising drive by the Saints came up empty inside the Atlanta 10 when Manning fumbled while rolling out and the Falcons recovered at their six.

The New Orleans defense continued to keep the visitors in check until, with time running short, the Falcons drove 80 yards in 12 plays. Bartkowski completed five passes for 64 yards and the Saints were twice called for pass interference. The series was capped by FB Haskel Stanback running the last yard for a touchdown and Mazzetti converted to narrow the New Orleans lead further to 17-13.

Still, there were only 57 seconds remaining and an onside kick was recovered by the Saints at their 49. Three running plays had the home team facing a fourth-and-two situation at the Atlanta 43. Rather than punt, Coach Nolan chose to try for a game-clinching first down, but Chuck Muncie was stopped for no gain.

With the clock down to 19 seconds and no timeouts remaining, Bartkowski faded back and lofted a long pass to the ten yard line, where three Falcons and an equal number of New Orleans defenders came together. WR Wallace Francis tapped the ball away to WR Alfred Jackson, who grabbed it and ran to the end zone for a 57-yard touchdown, stunning the crowd into silence. Mazzetti kicked the extra point and the Falcons came away the winners by a final score of 20-17.

The game-winning play, called “Big Ben Right”, was created to make use of a change in NFL rules that allowed two players from the same team to touch the ball without a defender having to have had contact with it in between. In this instance, it worked to perfection.

The Saints led in both total yards (347 to 284) and first downs (22 to 16), and they especially dominated in rushing yards (166 to 74). However, much of that offensive output by New Orleans occurred in the first half. The Saints also turned the ball over twice, to one by Atlanta, and the Falcons recorded three sacks, while the home team had one.

Steve Bartkowski completed 16 of 33 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown while giving up one interception, but was 10 of 17 in the fourth quarter. WR Billy Ryckman was Atlanta’s top receiver with four catches for 68 yards, while Alfred Jackson’s game-winning 57-yard reception his only one of the game. HB Bubba Bean rushed for 45 yards on 8 carries.

For the Saints, Archie Manning was successful on 14 of 25 throws for 169 yards and a TD with none intercepted, but was the opposite of Bartkowski in that he was most productive in the first half and made good on just one of five throws for seven yards in the second half. Rookie WR Wes Chandler had 7 receptions for 117 yards. Chuck Muncie gained 63 yards on 18 carries and Tony Galbreath contributed 54 yards on 17 attempts that included a TD.

“On the winning touchdown, there was no primary receiver,” explained Atlanta’s Coach Bennett. “We just batted the ball around and hoped someone could catch it.”

“My main objective was to trail the play,” added Alfred Jackson (pictured at left). “It’s a designed tip so another player could try to catch it. We worked on it several times this week. Wallace (Francis) tipped it to the side and no one else was there.”

The electrifying win made it five straight for the Falcons and, while the streak ended the next week at Chicago, they won another thriller over New Orleans that came down to the final seconds in the next game, and by an identical score. Atlanta finished with a 9-7 record to place second in the NFC West and, for the first time in franchise history, qualified for the playoffs. In the first year of two Wild Card entries per conference, the Falcons edged the Eagles in the first round, characteristically rallying in the fourth quarter to do so, and gave the Dallas Cowboys a tough battle before falling in the Divisional round. The Saints ended up third in the division at 7-9, which was their best record to date. Ultimately, the two closely-fought wins by Atlanta over the Saints played a key role in a noteworthy season for the Falcons – and prevented New Orleans from potentially achieving similar success.