They’ve never shared a division. Prior to Sunday night, they’d met only 31 times in the regular season. But the Atlanta Falcons and the Philadelphia Eagles have a history of colliding in the playoffs. Of the Falcons’ 24 postseason games, four have come against Philly.
The first encounter came Christmas Eve 1978. That Wild Card game was notable for being the Falcons’ first playoff appearance, and they’d played their first NFL game in 1966. Not that the Eagles had known much playoff glory. This was their first postseason appearance since the 1960 NFL championship, which saw them beat Lombardi’s Packers behind quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, who for his sins would wind up coaching the Falcons.
Playing at the long-gone Atlanta-Fulton Country Stadium, the Falcons of Leeman Bennett trailed 13-0 after three quarters, and it coulda/shoulda been worse. They had five turnovers, which is hard to overcome in any game, let alone the playoffs, but the other Birds had issues, too. Eagles kicker Nick Mike-Meyer had gotten hurt late in the season. Dick Vermeil opted to use punter Mike Michel on place-kicks. This would not prove the most sagacious choice of Vermeil’s distinguished career.
On the day, Michel missed an extra point and two field goals, the latter of which, a 34-yarder, would have won it at the end. But no. The Falcons prevailed on Steve Bartkowski’s touchdown pass to Wallace Francis with 1:37 remaining. For one bright shining moment, Atlanta fans had reason to belief that they playoffs were a snap. Forty years later, we all know better.
That would be Bennett’s last playoff victory as the Falcons’ coach. It would be 13 years before any coach led them to a postseason victory (Jerry Glanville over New Orleans in 1991). In January 1999, the miracle worker Dan Reeves led the Falcons to an astonishing NFC title over the 15-1 Vikings – still one of the biggest upsets in any conference championship – and a less-auspicious turn in the Super Bowl. And then the Falcons-Eagles thing got serious.
On Jan. 4, 2003, Reeves and Michael Vick beat the Packers and Brett Favre at Lambeau Field. It was the first time any postseason visitor had prevailed on the frozen tundra. Seven days later, the Eagles put an end to any notion of an improbable Super Run – the Falcons were 9-6-1 and lucky to have snagged a wild card – with an emphatic 20-6 victory at Veterans Stadium. Reeves wouldn’t coach another playoff game.
Two years later, Reeves’ successor – Jim Mora, whose hiring seemed a good idea, at least to Arthur Blank and Rich McKay, at the time – rode the running Vick and Warrick Dunn and T.J. Duckett to an 11-5 regular season. The Falcons annihilated the 8-8 Rams in the Divisional Round, setting up an NFC title match with the Eagles at the new Lincoln Financial Field. Having seen their team lose the conference championship three years running, Philly fans lived in fear that Vick would be the latest villain to deny the Iggles (local pronunciation) a Super Bowl.
Didn’t happen. It snowed oats in Philadelphia that Saturday. The temperature at kickoff the next day was 17 degrees; the wind chill was zero. The indoor Birds had no chance. They lost 27-10. Mora wouldn’t coach another playoff game.
We skip ahead, gliding over the Falcons’ excruciating playoff losses to Green Bay and San Francisco under Mike Smith and the mother of all excruciations – hint: 28-3 – under Dan Quinn, and we arrive at Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018. The post-Super Falcons had an OK season, but they dominated the Rams in L.A. in the Wild Card Round. Next up were the Eagles, the No. 1 without No. 1 quarterback Carson Wentz. The path to another Super Bowl couldn’t have opened wider: win in Philly and then win the NFC title tilt in Minnesota, where the Vikings were relying on the undrafted Case Keenum, and they’d have another crack at Belichick and Brady.
Didn’t happen. As spiffy as the Falcons had looked against the Rams, they were that awful against the Eagles, who rode the backup Nick Foles and one skinny touchdown – which came on fourth-and-goal from the 1 – to a historic 15-10 upset. That’s correct: Those Iggles were the first No. 1 seed ever to be an underdog in their first playoff game.
Even now, it defies credulity that they won. Even now, the Falcons’ mismanagement of their final goal-to-go series – remember the shovel pass? – remains a befuddlement. Yeah, the Foles-powered Eagles would go on to win the Super Bowl, but they shouldn’t have beaten the Falcons. But then, on the opening Thursday of the next season, Philly beat the same team again in the exact same way behind the very same No. 2 quarterback.
Which brought us to Sunday night under the retractable roof. This time the Falcons – coming off a horrid loss in Minneapolis – were the home underdogs. Maybe this time would bring a different result. If not, we might look back on Jan. 13, 2018, as the last time Quinn coached a playoff game, at least for this franchise.
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