On This Date in Sports December 24, 1978: Going Wild

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

In the first Wild Card Weekend, the Atlanta Falcons score two touchdowns in the final five minutes to beat the Philadelphia Eagles 14-13 at Fulton County Stadium, as Wallace Francis catches a 37-yard touchdown pass with 1:37 left in the game. In the AFC Wild Card Game, the Houston Oilers upset the Miami Dolphins 17-9, as Dan Pastorini leads the way passing for 306 yards.

The 1978 season marked big changes for the NFL, as the schedule expanded from 14 to 16 games, while a fifth playoff team was added in each conference. The fifth team would create the Wild Card round, whereas as before just the three division winners and the top second-place finishers would meet in the Division Playoff round.

The NFC Wild Card Game featured the Atlanta Falcons hosting the Philadelphia Eagles, at Fulton County Stadium. Both teams had finished the regular season with records of 9-7 and were ending long playoff droughts. The Eagles coached by Dick Vermeil had not been in the postseason since winning the 1960 NFL Championship. The Falcons meanwhile were making their first ever trip to the playoffs in their 13th season.

The Eagles took advantage of an early Falcons mistake to score first, as fumbled punt set up Philadelphia deep in Atlanta territory. This led Ron Jaworski to connect with Harold Carmichael on a 13-yard touchdown pass. However, it was just 6-0 as Mike Michel missed the extra point. The Eagles had trouble all season in the kicking game, as their regular placekicker Nick Mike-Mayer was injured leading Dick Vermeil to call on punter Mike Michel to do double duty. It would be the only score of the first half, as the Eagles did not score again until the third quarter when Wilbert Montgomery made it 13-0 with a one-yard run. However, Michel missed a 42-yard field in the fourth quarter as the Falcons despite five turnovers were still in the game. The Falcons finally got on the board, with a 20-yard pass from Steve Bartkowski to Jim Mitchel with 4:56 left. The Falcons would get the ball back and drove down the field again, with Bartkowski hitting Wallace Francis on a 37-touchdown pass with 1:37 left in the game. Unlike Mike Michel, who struggled with his PATs, Tim Mazzetti hit both kicks for Atlanta, to build a 14-13 lead. Mazzetti had been cut by the Eagles in the preseason. Ron Jaworski would work the Eagles down the field and gave Michel a chance at redemption, but he missed a 34-yard field goal allowing the Falcons to win the game 14-13. Mike Michel would never play another game in the NFL.

At the Orange Bowl, in the AFC Wild Card Game, the Miami Dolphins led by Don Shula were back after a three-year absence, after an 11-5 season, while the Houston Oilers led by Bum Phillips finished 10-6. Like the Eagles, Miami scored first thanks to a fumbled punt, as Andre Tillman caught a 13-yard pass from Bob Griese. The Oilers quickly answered as Dan Pastorini dropped a 13-yard pass to Tim Wilson. The game would remain deadlocked until the fourth quarter as Garo Yepremian missed a 38-yard field goal in the third quarter. Houston meanwhile grabbed the lead with a 35-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch. From there it was the Oilers defense making the big plays, as Gregg Bingham picked off Griese at midfield and set up the next score. Earl Campbell who all game had been bottled up by Miami finally got things going and capped the scoring drive with a one-yard score to give Houston a 17-7 lead. The Dolphins who committed five turnovers had time run out on them as Pastorini committed an intentional safety to wrap up the scoring at 17-9.

The Falcons would not go any further as they lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Round 27-20. The Oilers would go on to play in the AFC Championship Game by upsetting the New England Patriots 31-14 in the Divisional Round. They would lose to the eventual Super Bowl Champion, Pittsburgh Steelers 34-5.