The New Orleans Saints have given their fans some moments to treasure over their 51-year history. There have certainly been some moments that would make any grown man speechless with rage as well. Today, Canal Street Chronicles looks back in history at precisely such moments.
The date was Sunday, November 12, 1978.
The New Orleans Saints were taking on their bitter division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons. The game was held in the friendly confines of the Louisiana Superdome, where the majority of the approximately 72,000 people in attendance would be screaming their encouragement for the hometown Saints. Both teams entered their first of two matchups on the 1978 season riding a wave of momentum. Atlanta had won four consecutive games to enter this contest with a 6-4 record. New Orleans, meanwhile, had overcome a 2-4 start to win 3 of it’s previous 4 games to enter this showdown with a 5-5 record. The matchup also carried extra significance; not only had both teams positioned themselves for a late season playoff push, but neither franchise had ever made the postseason during it’s existence.
The game started somewhat slowly, with a Saints field goal as the only score of the 1st Quarter, which was matched by Atlanta in the second to even the score. New Orleans quarterback Archie Manning would lead the Saints on a 64-yard drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Tony Galbreath. The Saints then got the ball back with 1:24 left in the half, driving down the field quickly, moving 54 yards in just six plays. A 14-yard touchdown strike from Manning to tight end Henry Childs put New Orleans up, 17-3, at the halftime break.
The Saints running back duo of Galbreath and Chuck Muncie controlled the game on the ground, combining for 35 carries as the team rushed for 166 yards. New Orleans wide receiver Wes Chandler had a dominant afternoon. He caught 7 of Manning’s 14 completions, for a game-high 117 of Manning’s 169 passing yards. The Saints defense, considered the weaker unit on the team, held Atlanta to just 16 first downs and 284 yards for the game.
After the Falcons narrowed the Saints lead to 17-6 on a 3rd Quarter field goal, it appeared as if New Orleans had put itself in position to nearly clinch this pivotal matchup. A Saints drive took them inside the Atlanta 10-yard line with a little over 13 minutes to go in the contest, but an Archie Manning fumble negated the scoring opportunity. The New Orleans defense continued to hold strong, until an 80-yard Atlanta touchdown march that started with 2:23 to play made the score 17-13, in favor of New Orleans. The score came with just 57 seconds left in the game, forcing the Falcons to attempt an onside kick. New Orleans recovered the attempt, giving them possession of the ball at their own 49-yard line, and the game seemingly clinched. The sequence of events that happened next tortures the memories of Saints fans to this day.
Three straight plays gained eight yards, bringing the Saints to a 4th and 2 at the Atlanta 43-yard line. Amazingly, unbelievably, and excruciatingly, Saints coach Dick Nolan went against the logic of punting the football, and instead elected to attempt to get the first down. The ensuing sweep to the right side by Saints running back Chuck Muncie was stopped for no gain, giving Atlanta possession of the ball at their own 43-yard line with 19 seconds remaining in the game.
Falcons quarterback Steve Bartkowski trotted out with his offense and a single play call, named “Big Ben Right”. Atlanta lined three receivers out to the right side of their formation: Billy Ryckman, Wallace Francis, and Alfred Jackson. Bartkowski took the snap and threw the ball deep down the field. Francis had separated himself slightly from his teammates and the group of Saints defenders down the field. The football made it’s descent at around the New Orleans 16-yard line, where Francis went up simultaneously with Saints defensive backs Ralph McGill and Clarence Chapman. The three players batted the ball straight up into the air, where a trailing Alfred Jackson snatched the ball at the Saints’ 11 and sprinted into the end zone for an unbelievable 57-yard touchdown and a deflating 20-17 Atlanta victory.
Two weeks later, on November 26, the teams met again, this time in Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium. The beginning of the game picked right up from the wild finish of two weeks earlier. Atlanta drove right down the field for a touchdown on their first drive, then intercepted Archie Manning on the Saints first offensive play deep in New Orleans territory. Fortunately for the Saints, Atlanta missed a short field goal attempt. Just two plays later, Manning connected with tight end Larry Hardy on a 71-yard touchdown strike to tie the game at seven. Halfway into the second quarter, the Falcons benefited from a botched punt attempt by New Orleans deep in their territory, converting the chance into a field goal, and a 10-7 advantage. The lead did not last long, as the Saints drove down the field, scoring on a 28-yard Chuck Muncie touchdown run, and taking a 14-10 lead into the halftime break.
The Saints did not have the rushing success they had two weeks earlier, but Muncie and Tony Galbreath did combine for 113 yards on the ground. Tight end Henry Childs led all receivers on the afternoon, with 100 yards on only 3 catches. Atlanta, on the other hand, did have more success offensively than they did in the teams’ first matchup, nearly doubling the Saints total of first downs, on their way to almost 400 yards of total offense. The New Orleans defense did stiffen twice in the first half inside their own 20, and repeated the feat twice more in the second half. A 3rd Quarter Saints field goal widened their lead to 17-10, but two times in the second half the Falcons had driven the ball inside the New Orleans 20-yard line. They came up empty each time, as the Saints defense came up with turnovers on both occasions.
A 14 play, 73-yard 4th Quarter drive by Atlanta netted the Falcons a field goal, narrowing the Saints lead to 17-13. The drive, however, bled the game clock from 10:20 to just over 3 minutes to go. New Orleans was only able to convert a single first down following the kick, and punted the ball down to the Atlanta 28-yard line with just 53 seconds to play, but leaving the Falcons with zero timeouts. Bartkowski quickly drove his team down to the Saints 34 yard line on three completions, still leaving 23 seconds to go for another miracle finish.
Bartkowski’s first pass sailed near the Saints end zone, where Superdome hero Alfred Williams nearly duplicated a heart stopping end, but couldn’t quite handle the throw. Bartkowski then threw a shorter sideline pattern to Jackson, bringing the ball to the Saints’ 25 and stopping the clock with 16 seconds. Another Falcon end zone attempt was this time intercepted by Saints defensive back Ralph McGill, seemingly clinching the game for New Orleans. Unfortunately, a pass interference penalty on Saints defender Maurice Spencer reversed the play, and moved Atlanta to the Saints 1-yard line with 10 seconds to go. Bartkowski then found tight end Jim Mitchell for a touchdown on the next play, giving the Falcons yet another improbable 20-17 last second victory.
The 1978 Atlanta Falcons finished the regular season with a 9-7 record, and qualified for the playoffs for the first time in their team’s history. They hosted the Philadelphia Eagles in a first round wild card playoff game, emerging as 14-13 winners before losing to Dallas in the divisional round the following week.
The 1978 New Orleans Saints won two of their final 3 games to finish their year with a record of 7-9, the best in their franchise history. Most Saints fans, however, will always remember the ’78 season as a classic case of “what could have been”, and yet another reason to despise the Atlanta Falcons.