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On This Date in Sports January 4, 1981: The Falcons First Collapse

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The Atlanta Falcons, holding a 27-17 lead with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter at Fulton County Stadium, are beaten by the Dallas Cowboys 30-27 in the Divisional Playoffs. It had been a dream season for the Falcons who rode the Gritz Blitz to a 12-4 record and were in control most of the game before the Cowboys rallied and took the lead with 47 seconds left on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Danny White to Drew Pearson. 

The Atlanta Falcons had all the makings of a team on the rise for coach Leeman Bennett. In 1978 they made the playoffs for the first time and beat the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Game but lost a week later to the Dallas Cowboys in the Divisional Playoffs. The Falcons took a step backward in 1979, going for 6-10. The Falcons turned up the heat on defense in 1980, with defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville leading the "Gritz Blitz." A part of the Gritz Blitz was linebackers Al Richardson and Buddy Curry, who split the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Sparked by a nine-game winning streak, Atlanta won their first division title and were the top seed in the NFC at 12-4. 

The 1980 season saw a new era for the Tom Landry and Dallas Cowboys as Roger Staubach retired before the season. With Danny White taking over at quarterback, the Cowboys did not skip a beat posting a record of 12-4. However, the Cowboys were forced to settle for the Wild Card as they lost the tiebreaker to the Philadelphia Eagles on point differential. The Cowboys rolled over the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card Game 34-13 to advance to the Divisional Round where the Atlanta Falcons were waiting.

The Falcons, with a full house behind them, jumped out to a 10-0 lead early as Tim Mazzetti hit a 38-yard field goal while Steve Bartkowski connected with Alfred Jenkins on a 60-yard touchdown pass. Dallas got on the board late in the first quarter on a 38-yard field goal by Rafael Septien. In the second quarter, the Cowboys took advantage of the Falcons' fumble and tied the game as Danny White hit Bill Joe DuPree on a five-yard touchdown pass. Atlanta would take back momentum before the half ended as Lynn Cain scored from the one. However, a chance to add to the lead went by the board as Bartkowski was intercepted by Steve Wilson deep in Dallas territory. 

The Cowboys got the ball to start the third quarter but fumbled in the red zone as Joel Williams ran down Drew Pearson at the 15. The Falcons would drive down and take a 24-10 lead as Steve Bartkowski connected with William Andrews on a 12-yard touchdown pass. The Falcons carried a 24-10 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys were driving down the field for a drive that ended with a one-yard run by Robert Newhouse. After the Falcons offense stalled, their defense made a play that could have changed the game as Tom Pridemore picked off Danny White and took the ball down to the Dallas 37-yard line. The Falcons offense continued to struggle as they settled for a 34-yard field goal by Tim Mazzetti. 

Down 27-17, the Cowboys saw time beginning to slip away. Needing a touchdown, Danny White connected with Drew Pearson on a 14-yard touchdown pass with 3:04 left in the game. Leading 27-24, Atlanta needed to get one or two first downs to run out the clock. Ed "Too Tall" Jones looking to make a big play, jumped off-sides but managed to get back onside before the snap as the Falcons hesitated and were held and forced to punt. The Cowboys got the ball and drove 70 yards, with Pearson catching a 23-yard touchdown pass with 47 seconds left. The Cowboys botched the snap on the PAT but led 29-27. Now facing desperation, the Falcons offense failed to move the ball as Dallas held on advanced to the NFC Championship Game, which they would lose to the Eagles 20-7.