Friday Flashback:  First NFL Wildcard Game


As the National Football League (NFL) heads into the first weekend of the wildcard round of playoff games, today’s flashback goes back to the very first wildcard playoff game.  Prior to 1978, the NFL had one wildcard that joined the other three division winners in the divisional playoff round but in 1978 the NFL added an additional wildcard qualifier in each conference which created a week where the two wildcard teams played to join the other division winners the following week.

The Atlanta Falcons hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on December 24, 1978 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.  The Falcons were in the playoffs for the first time in team history while the Eagles qualified for the first time since 1960.  The Falcons won the game by overcoming a 13-0 deficit by scoring two touchdowns in the final five minutes of the game.  The Eagles had a chance to win the game when quarterback Tom Jaworski completed four passes to get the Eagles to the Atlanta 16 with 13 seconds left.  Philadelphia’s kicking problems came back to haunt them as their punter, Mike Michel, had filled in late in the season.  Michel missed a 33-yard field goal, then the Falcons ran out the clock to win 14-13.

Atlanta quarterback, Steve Bartkowski was 18 for 32 pass attempts for 243, two touchdowns and two interceptions.  The leading receiving, and perhaps the reason the Falcons won the game, was Wallace Francis who caught six passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.  

The Falcons advanced to play the Dallas Cowboys the following week in the National Football Conference (NFC) Divisional playoffs and fell short, 27-20.

In 1990, the NFL added another team from each conference which created two wildcard games and the format that exists today.  There has been a proposal to expand the playoffs again from the current 12 to 14 teams with only the top team in each conference receiving a bye in the first round.  

Personally, I have been in favor of totally scrapping the divisional alignments and simply grouping teams in 16-team conferences with the top eight teams in each qualifying for the playoffs.  This would eliminate a team with an 8-8 record of less from either qualifying or winning a division when they are clearly not the best team in the conference.  

Whether or not wildcard games are a good idea, I was not against it in 1978.

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