NFL playoffs, 1978-79

NFL playoffs, 1978-79

The NFL playoffs following the 1978 NFL season led up to Super Bowl XIII.

This was the first year that the playoffs expanded to a ten-team format, adding a second wild card team (a fifth seed) from each conference. The two wild card teams from each conference (the 4 and 5 seeds) would play each other in the first round, called the "Wild Card Playoffs." The division winners (seeds 1, 2, and 3) automatically advanced to the Divisional Playoffs, which became the second round of the playoffs.

However, the league continued to prohibit meetings between two teams from the same division in the Divisional Playoffs. Thus, there would be times when the pairing in that round would be the 1 seed vs. the 3 seed and 2 vs. 4.

Playoff seeds
1 Pittsburgh Steelers (Central winner) Los Angeles Rams (West winner)
2 New England Patriots (East winner) Dallas Cowboys (East winner)
3 Denver Broncos (West winner) Minnesota Vikings (Central winner)
4 Miami Dolphins Atlanta Falcons
5 Houston Oilers Philadelphia Eagles

Note: As per the rules of the NFL playoffs prior to the 1990 season (notwithstanding the strike-shortened 1982 season), the Pittsburgh Steelers (the AFC 1 seed) did not play the Houston Oilers (the 5 seed), nor did the Los Angeles Rams (the NFC 1 seed) play the Atlanta Falcons (the 4 seed), in the Divisional playoff round because those teams were in the same division.


Wild Card playoffs

December 24, 1978

AFC: Houston Oilers 17, Miami Dolphins 9

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Oilers 7 0 01017
Dolphins 7 0 029

at Miami Orange Bowl, Miami, Florida

Quarterback Dan Pastorini led the Oilers to an upset victory by passing for 306 yards. The Dolphins scored first after Earnie Rhone recovered a fumbled punt at the Houston 21-yard line, setting up quarterback Bob Griese's 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Andre Tillman. However, the Oilers responded with a 71-yard drive that was capped with Pastorini's 13-yard touchdown pass to running back Tim Wilson. Neither team scored again until the fourth quarter when Toni Fritsch made a 35-yard field goal. Then, linebacker Gregg Bingham intercepted Griese on Miami's next drive to set up running back Earl Campbell's 1-yard rushing touchdown. The Dolphins closed out the scoring, but only when Pastorini ran out of the end zone for an intentional safety to run out the clock.

NFC: Atlanta Falcons 14, Philadelphia Eagles 13

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Eagles 6 0 7013
Falcons 0 0 01414

at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium, Atlanta, Georgia

Philadelphia had been decimated by problems at the placekicker position all year long. Starting kicker Nick Mike-Mayer had made just 8/17 field goals before suffering a season-ending injury in week 12. To replace him, coach Dick Vermeil used punter Mike Michel. Michel had done some placekicking in college, so Vermeil assigned him both roles. This did not pay off, as Michel missed 3 of 12 extra points during the remainder of the season, performing so poorly that the Eagles started attempting fourth down conversions deep in opponent territory rather than field goals. Coming into this playoff game, Michel had not attempted a single field goal, and the Eagles issues in the kicking game would ultimate play a decisive role in their loss.[1] Incidentally, the Falcons kicker in this game, rookie Tim Mazetti, had been cut by Philadelphia in the preseason.

The Falcons won their first playoff game in team history after they overcame a 13-0 deficit by scoring 2 touchdowns in the final 5 minutes of the game. In the first quarter, Philadelphia's Cleveland Franklin recovered a fumble from Billy Rychman on a punt return at the Falcons 13-yard line, setting up wide receiver Harold Carmichael's 13-yard touchdown reception from Ron Jaworski. However, Michel missed the ensuing extra point, which would later prove to be costly.

Neither team would score again until the third quarter when the Eagles took advantage of another Atlanta special teams miscue, this time a dismal 17-yard punt by John James that gave them a first down on their 40-yard line. Aided by a roughing the passer penalty and a pair of receptions by Charlie Smith, Jowarski led the team 60 yards to score on Wilbert Montgomery's 1-yard rushing touchdown. Michel's extra point was partially deflected, but still went in to give the Eagles a 13-0 lead. Later in the period, Michel had a chance to put the team up by three scores, but he missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, the first field goal kick of his career.

Still, the Eagles seemed in control of the game going into the fourth quarter. And with 9:52 left, they appeared to be in prime position to secure a win when cornerback Bobby Howard intercepted Falcons QB Steve Bartkowski's pass, the 5th turnover of the day for Atlanta. The Eagles then moved the ball to Atlanta's 15-yard line, but with 8:16 to go, linebacker Fulton Kuykendoll recovered a fumble from fullback Mike Hogan on the 13. A few plays later, faced with second down and 10 on the 26, Bartkowski launched a deep pass to Wallace Francis, who was tightly covered by defensive back Herm Edwards. Both players went up for the ball and came down with it, resulting in a simultaneous catch between each of them. Under NFL rules, a simultaneous catch goes to the receiver, so Atlanta kept the ball and gained 49 yards in what turned out to be a decisive play. Three plays later, Bartkowski found tight end Jim Mitchell wide open in the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown pass, cutting the score to 13-7 at 4:56.

The Eagles went three-and-out on their next possession and had to punt ball back to the Falcons. Franklin tackled Rychman for a 5-yard loss on the return, but committed a 15-yard facemask penalty in the process, giving Atlanta the ball on their 49-yard line. After 5 plays, Atlanta had moved only 12 yards. Faced with a crucial 3rd and 10 situation, Bartkowski went deep to Francis again, this time connecting with the receiver as he evaded safety Randy Logan to score on a 37-yard touchdown completion. With Mazetti's extra point, the Falcons took their first lead of the game, 14-13, with 1:37 left in the game.

The Eagles had one last shot to win the game as Jaworski completed four passes to get them to Atlanta's 16-yard line with 13 seconds remaining, but Michel missed a 33-yard field goal attempt and the Falcons ran out the rest of the clock.

Bartkowski completed 18/32 passes for 243 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions. His top target was Francis, who caught 6 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. Jaworski completed 19/35 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. The Eagles leading receiver was Smith, who caught 7 passes for 108 yards. This was and to this day remains the only playoff game ever to feature two Polish-born starting quarterbacks (Bartkowski and Jaworski). Michel was released by the Eagles in the offseason after this game and never played in the NFL again.[2]

Divisional playoffs

December 30, 1978

AFC: Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Broncos 3 7 0010
Steelers 6 13 01433

at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Steelers dominated the Broncos by gaining 425 yards of total offense. After Denver scored first on a field goal, Pittsburgh responded by driving 66 yards in 8 plays to score on running back Franco Harris' 1-yard touchdown run. Then on the Steelers' next drive, Harris ran 18 yards to the end zone for his second touchdown. Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, a 45-yarder to wide receiver John Stallworth and a 38-yard one to wide receiver Lynn Swann. Bradshaw completed 16 of 29 passes for 272 yards and 2 touchdowns, Stallworth had 10 receptions for 156 yards and a touchdown, and Harris rushed for 105 yards and 2 touchdowns.

NFC: Dallas Cowboys 27, Atlanta Falcons 20

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Falcons 7 13 0020
Cowboys 10 3 7727

at Texas Stadium, Irving, Texas

Dallas' "Doomsday Defense" limited Atlanta quarterback Steve Bartkowski to only 8 completions in 23 attempts and intercepted him 3 times en route to victory. After the Falcons led 20-13 at halftime, the Cowboys scored 14 unanswered points in the second half. Atlanta scored on their first four possessions with a 14-yard rushing touchdown by running back Bubba Bean, a 17-yard touchdown pass from Bartkowski to Wallace Francis, and two field goals. Dallas countered with a 13-yard touchdown run by Scott Laidlaw and two field goals of their own. In the second half, Cowboys starting quarterback Roger Staubach was knocked out of the game with a concussion after being hit on a blitz by Falcons linebacker Robert Pennywell. Backup Danny White then led Dallas on a 54-yard drive that ended with tight end Jackie Smith's 2-yard touchdown reception to tie it at 20. In the fourth quarter, Laidlaw scored on a 1-yard touchdown run that was set up after a bad Falcons punt enabled Dallas to take over the ball at the Atlanta 30-yard line.

December 31, 1978

AFC: Houston Oilers 31, New England Patriots 14

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Oilers 0 21 3731
Patriots 0 0 7714

at Foxboro Stadium, Foxborough, Massachusetts

Quarterback Dan Pastorini led the Oilers to a victory by throwing for 200 yards and three touchdowns, while running back Earl Campbell rushed for 118 yards and a score. Houston jumped to a 21-0 halftime advantage as Pastorini threw a 71-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ken Burrough, a 19-yarder to tight end Mike Barber, and a 13-yarder to Barber. After Burrough's score gave the Oilers a 7-0 lead, the Patriots marched deep into Houston territory, but safety Mike Reinfeldt intercepted a pass at the 1-yard line, and then the Oilers marched 99 yards to score on Barber's first touchdown. Another Reinfeldt interception set up Barber's second score. New England scored two touchdowns in the second half to cut the lead 24-14, but an interception by linebacker Gregg Bingham set up Campbell's 2-yard rushing touchdown to close out the scoring.

Patriots tight end Russ Francis caught 8 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown.

As it would turn out, this would be the Patriots only playoff loss at Foxboro Stadium. They would not lose another home playoff game again until 31 years later, seven years after Gillette Stadium opened.

NFC: Los Angeles Rams 34, Minnesota Vikings 10

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Vikings 3 7 0010
Rams 0 10 141034

at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles

After the game was tied 10-10 at halftime, the Rams dominated the second half by scoring 24 unanswered points. After the Vikings opened up the scoring with a field goal, Los Angeles marched 59 yards to score on quarterback Pat Haden's 9-yard touchdown pass to Willie Miller. However, Minnesota tied the game 6 seconds before halftime when quarterback Fran Tarkenton threw a 1-yard touchdown to Ahmad Rashad. From that point on, the Rams controlled the rest of the game. After Cullen Bryant gave Los Angeles the lead midway through the third period with a 3-yard touchdown, Haden threw a 27-yard touchdown to Ron Jessie. Meanwhile, the Vikings offense could only manage 58 yards of offense during the second half in what turned out to be Tarkenton's last game of a Hall of Fame career.

Conference championships

January 7, 1979

AFC Championship: Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Houston Oilers 5

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Oilers 0 3 205
Steelers 14 17 3034

at Three Rivers Stadium, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

On a wet, slick, and slippery field, the Steelers dominated the Oilers by forcing 9 turnovers and only allowing 5 points. Pittsburgh took the early lead by driving 57 yards to score on running back Franco Harris' 7-yard touchdown run. Then, linebacker Jack Ham recovered a fumble at the Houston 17-yard line, which led to running back Rocky Bleier's 15-yard rushing touchdown.

In the second quarter, a 19-yard field goal by Oilers kicker Toni Fritsch cut the score 14-3, but then the Steelers scored 17 points during the last 48 seconds of the second quarter. First, Houston running back Ronnie Coleman lost a fumble, and moments later Pittsburgh wide receiver Lynn Swann caught a 29-yard touchdown reception. Then Johnnie Dirden fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which led to Steelers wide receiver John Stallworth's 17-yard reception. After the Oilers got the ball back, Coleman fumbled again, and Roy Gerela kicked a field goal to increase Pittsburgh's lead, 31-3. Houston would never pose a threat for the rest of the game as they turned over the ball 4 times in their 6 second-half possessions.

NFC Championship: Dallas Cowboys 28, Los Angeles Rams 0

Game summary
1 2 34Total
Cowboys 0 0 72128
Rams 0 0 000

at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles

After a scoreless defensive struggle in the first half (Ram kicker Frank Corral missed two field goals), the Cowboys forced 5 second half turnovers that led to 28 points. With 1:52 left in the third quarter, Dallas safety Charlie Waters intercepted a pass and returned it to the Los Angeles 10-yard line. Five plays later, running back Tony Dorsett, who finished the game with 101 rushing yards, scored on a 5-yard touchdown run to give the Cowboys a 7-0 lead. Waters then recorded another interception on the Rams next drive, setting up quarterback Roger Staubach's 4-yard touchdown pass to Scott Laidlaw with 58 seconds into the final period. On Waters' second interception, Pat Haden's throwing hand hit Randy White's helmet, breaking his thumb and knocking him out of the game. On the Rams' next drive, Vince Ferragamo, Haden's replacement, hit Willie Miller on a 65-yard pass to the 10-yard line, but on first and goal Cullen Bryant fumbled, and Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin recovered at the 11-yard line. Dallas then marched 89 yards, featuring a 53 yard run on first down by Tony Dorsett to score on Billy Joe Dupree's 11-yard touchdown catch. The Cowboys closed out the scoring with 1:19 left in the game when linebacker Thomas Henderson intercepted a Ferragamo pass and returned it 68-yards for the final touchdown.

Super Bowl XIII: Pittsburgh Steelers 35, Dallas Cowboys 31

Further information: Super Bowl XIII
Game summary
1 2 34Total
Steelers (AFC) 7 14 01435
Cowboys (NFC) 7 7 31431

at Orange Bowl, Miami, Florida