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1978–79 NFL playoffs


1978–79 NFL playoffs

The National Football League playoffs for the 1978 season began on December 24, 1978. The postseason tournament concluded with the Pittsburgh Steelers defeating the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XIII, 35–31, on January 21, 1979, at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida.

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.


  • Participants 1
  • Bracket 2
  • Wild Card playoffs 3
    • December 24, 1978 3.1
      • AFC: Houston Oilers 17, Miami Dolphins 9 3.1.1
      • NFC: Atlanta Falcons 14, Philadelphia Eagles 13 3.1.2
  • Divisional playoffs 4
    • December 30, 1978 4.1
      • AFC: Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10 4.1.1
      • NFC: Dallas Cowboys 27, Atlanta Falcons 20 4.1.2
    • December 31, 1978 4.2
      • AFC: Houston Oilers 31, New England Patriots 14 4.2.1
      • NFC: Los Angeles Rams 34, Minnesota Vikings 10 4.2.2
  • Conference championships 5
    • January 7, 1979 5.1
      • AFC Championship: Pittsburgh Steelers 34, Houston Oilers 5 5.1.1
      • NFC Championship: Dallas Cowboys 28, Los Angeles Rams 0 5.1.2
  • Super Bowl XIII: Pittsburgh Steelers 35, Dallas Cowboys 31 6
  • References 7


Within each conference, the three division winners and the two wild card teams (the top two non-division winners with the best overall regular season records) qualified for the playoffs. The three division winners were seeded 1 through 3 based on their overall won-lost-tied record, and the wild card teams were seeded 4 and 5. The NFL did not use a fixed bracket playoff system. In the first round, dubbed the wild-card playoffs or wild-card weekend, the fourth seed wild card hosted the fifth seed. All three division winners from each conference then received a bye in the first round. The second round, the divisional playoffs, had a restriction where two teams from the same division could not meet: the surviving wild card team visited the division champion outside its own division that had the higher seed, and the remaining two teams from that conference played each other. The two surviving teams from each conference's divisional playoff games then meet in the respective AFC and NFC Conference Championship games, hosted by the higher seed. Although the Super Bowl, the fourth and final round of the playoffs, was played at a neutral site, the designated home team was based on an annual rotation by conference.

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: 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.
Divisional Playoffs
    December 31 - Schaefer Stadium        
AFC Wild Card Game AFC Championship
 5  Houston  31
December 24 - Miami Orange Bowl     January 7 - Three Rivers Stadium
 2*  New England  14  
 5  Houston  17  5  Houston  5
December 30 - Three Rivers Stadium
 4  Miami  9      1  Pittsburgh  34   Super Bowl XIII
 3  Denver  10
    January 21 - Miami Orange Bowl
 1*  Pittsburgh  33  
 A1  Pittsburgh  35
December 30 - Texas Stadium
NFC Wild Card Game NFC Championship    N2  Dallas  31
 4  Atlanta  20
December 24 - Fulton County Stadium     January 7 - L.A. Memorial Coliseum
 2*  Dallas  27  
 5  Philadelphia  13  2  Dallas  28
December 31 - L.A. Memorial Coliseum
 4  Atlanta  14      1  Los Angeles  0  
 3  Minnesota  10
 1*  Los Angeles  34  

Wild Card playoffs

December 24, 1978

AFC: Houston Oilers 17, Miami Dolphins 9

Quarterback Dan Pastorini led the Oilers to an upset victory by passing for 306 yards. Houston outgained the Dolphins in total yards, 455-209, and forced 5 turnovers while only losing one on their end.

Miami managed to keep Houston running back Earl Campbell well contained in the first half, limiting him to just 16 yards on 13 carries, but they were unable to handle the passing attack of Pastorini, who completed 16 of 21 passes for 261 yards during that time. Meanwhile, Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese completed just 6 of 16 passes in the first two quarters.

The Dolphins scored first after Earnie Rhone recovered a fumbled punt from Robert Woods 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 an 11-play, 71-yard drive in which Pastorini completed 6 of 7 passes for 66 yards, the last one a 13-yard touchdown pass to running back Tim Wilson. Neither team scored again until the fourth quarter, despite several chances. In the second quarter, Pastorini completed a 55-yard pass to tight end Mike Barber on the Dolphins 9-yard line, but the drive ended with no points when Toni Fritsch's 28-yard field goal attempt was blocked by linebacker Kim Bokamper. The Oilers later drove to the Dolphins red zone with 14 seconds left in the half. On the next play, Pastorini completed a pass to Ken Burrough, but he was tackled short of the end zone and the clock ran out before the team could spike the ball to stop it.

In the third quarter, Miami blew a chance to take then lead when Garo Yepremian drove a 38-yard field goal attempt wide left. In the final period, Toni Fritsch made a 35-yard field goal to give the Oilers a 10-7 lead. Then linebacker Gregg Bingham intercepted a pass from Griese and returend it 4 yards to midfield. Campbell finally managed to get into gear with a 20-yard run on the ensuing drive, and eventually finished it off with a 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.[1]

Despite his poor first half, Campbell finished the game with 84 rushing yards and a 13-yard reception. Wilson rushed for 76 yards and caught 5 passes for 40. Barber had 112 yards on 4 receptions, while Burroughs caught 6 passes for 103. Griese finished the game just 11/28 for 114 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions.

NFC: Atlanta Falcons 14, Philadelphia Eagles 13

This was a matchup of two teams that had ended prolonged postseason droughts. The Falcons were in the playoffs for the first time in their 13-year history while the Eagles were playing their first playoff game since their victory in the 1960 NFL Championship Game.

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.[2] Incidentally, the Falcons kicker in this game, rookie Tim Mazzetti, 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 Ryckman 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, Jaworski 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 Kuykendall 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 Ryckman 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 Mazzetti'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.[3]

Divisional playoffs

December 30, 1978

AFC: Pittsburgh Steelers 33, Denver Broncos 10

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

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

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.

After a scoreless first quarter, Houston completely took over the game. Houston receiver Ken Burrough caught a pass from Pastorini at the Pats 40-yard, broke through coverage from Mike Haynes, and took off for a 71-yard touchdown reception. Raymond Clayborn's 47-yard kickoff return gave the Patriots a chance to strike back, but two plays later, Steve Grogan's pass on a flea flicker play was intercepted by Mike Reinfeldt on the Oilers 1-yard line. Aided by an unnecessary roughness penalty that gave them a first down after failing to convert a 3rd down on their own 7-yard line, Houston drove 99 yards to score on Pastorini's 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Mike Barber. Again, the Patriots seemed ready to respond, driving to the Oilers 23-yard line, but again they came up short due to Reinfeldt, who intercepted another pass from Grogan to end the drive. Reinfeldt's 27-yard return and another unccessary roughness penalty against New England gave the Oilers a first down on the Patriots 49-yard line. Pastorini completed a 22-yard pass to Barder, and eventually got his team a 21-0 lead with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Barber at the end of the possession.

Pastorini finished the first half with 10 of 12 completions for 184 yards and 3 touchdowns. He would throw only two passes in the second half, both completions. Meanwhile, Grogan was benched with 18 seconds left in the half, having completed only 3 of 12 passes for 38 yards.[4]

A 30-yard field goal by Toni Fritsch gave the Oilers a 24-0 third quarter lead before New England managed to mount a comeback. First they drove 75 yards to score on Andy Johnson's 24-yard halfback option play pass to receiver Harold Jackson. Then in the fourth quarter, they took advantage of a short field due to a poor punt by Cliff Parsley, scoring on Tim Owen's 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Russ Francis that cut their deficit to 24-14. However, their efforts were dashed on their drive when linebacker Gregg Bingham intercepted an Owen pass and returned it 19 yards to the Patriot 18-yard line, setting up Campbell's 2-yard touchdown run to put the game away.

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

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

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

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 9:11 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.

With about 4 minutes left in the period, the Rams mounted a threat when Jackie Wallace returned a punt at midfield to the Dallas 23-yard line. Three plays later at the Dallas 14, Jim Jodat was stopped cold on 4th and a foot by Randy White and Larry Bethea.

As the third quarter neared a close, Waters recorded another interception and returned it to the Rams' 20, setting up quarterback Roger Staubach's 4-yard touchdown pass to Scott Laidlaw 58 seconds into the final period. On Waters' interception, Pat Haden's throwing hand hit Randy White's helmet, breaking his thumb and knocking him out of the game.

At around the 8-minute mark in the 4th, 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 (his first in 337 career carries), 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 and scored on Billy Joe Dupree's 11-yard touchdown catch. Dorsett had 70 of the drive's 89 yards rushing alone.

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


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  • Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (ISBN 0-06-270174-6)
  • The Sporting News Complete Super Bowl Book 1995 (ISBN 0-89204-523-X)
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