The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 3 takes us to the 1978 season, when Atlanta dialed up a miraculous last-second victory over the New Orleans Saints. Steve Bartkowski heaved the football down the right sideline to Wallace Francis who tipped the ball to a trailing Alfred Jackson for the game-winning touchdown.
Date: Nov. 12, 1978
The Play: “Big Ben Right” has been the most celebrated regular season play in Falcons history for decades and when the timing, significance and excitement of the play are all taken into account, it is easy to understand why. The Falcons were riding a four-game winning streak into their Nov. 12 trip to New Orleans but with time running out faced with a four-point deficit. A field goal wouldn’t do. Atlanta was going to have to finish an 80-yard touchdown drive to escape with the victory. The Falcons were on their own 43-yard line when they called “Big Ben Right’’ in the huddle, a play designed for Steve Bartkowski to heave a Hail Mary down the right sideline. This was not a conventional Hail Mary, however. As planned, Bartkowski launched the ball deep down the right sideline where receiver Wallace Francis was there to tip it in the air. The perfectly tipped ball was corralled by a trailing Alfred Jackson, who sprinted the final 10 yards for the game-winning 57-yard score.
Making the throw: “Big Ben Right is where I just throw it up and hope,” said Bartkowski. “I was surprised. I was able to see the whole play and my first reaction was, ‘Praise the Lord.’ ”
Tip drill: “My job was to tip the ball up and keep it alive,” Francis told the media afterward. “I was never the intended receiver.” Jackson added “When he tipped it, I was right behind it. I followed right behind the crowd to get it when somebody tipped it.”
The comeback: Big Ben Right was the clinching play of miraculous comeback that began with 2 minutes and 23 seconds left as the Falcons trailed 17-6. Bartkowski engineered an 80-yard drive that was capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Haskel Stanback that brought the game within 17-13.
Historic Season: The Big Ben victory allowed the Falcons to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and the following month on Christmas Eve, they would host Philadelphia in the first-ever NFC Wild Card Game. Once again, Atlanta used Bartkowski’s late-game magic, this time to erase a 13-0 fourth quarter deficit. Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Harold Carmichael for the Eagles first touchdown, but they missed the PAT. Running back Wilbert Montgomery’s touchdown run made it a 13-0 Philadelphia lead heading into the fourth quarter. Atlanta had just five minutes left when Bartkowski found Jim Mitchell for a 20-yard touchdown pass. Unlike “Big Ben Right” where Francis was the assist man to Jenkins, the speedy receiver was targeted in crunch time for this game-winner. Francis hauled in the deciding score on a 37-yard touchdown pass from Bartkowski to complete the comeback and stamp the first playoff win in team history.
Without “Big Ben Right,” Atlanta would not have made the playoffs. They lost three of their last five games in 1978 and backed into the playoffs with a 9-7 record before shocking the Eagles in the Wild Card Round.
Catch a new Top 10 play in Falcons history every week through the end of the season.
No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road
No. 9: Claude Humphrey gets call to Canton
No. 8: Playoff win in the ‘Frozen Tundra’
No. 7: Matt Ryan’s first NFL pass
No. 6: Hail Mary pass known as’Big Ben II’
No. 5: The Trade to get ‘Bart’
No. 4: Nobis is Falcons’ first-ever draft choice
No. 3: ‘Big Ben Right’