The Atlanta Falcons have never won a Super Bowl and have only made it there once. That means there’s some heartbreak littered in the history of the franchise, and a prime example was the 1980 Atlanta Falcons. They earned the #1 seed and looked on their way to a playoff win before the rug was cut out from under them.
Steve Bartkowski, a former #1 overall draft pick had a Pro Bowl year at quarterback. Bartkowski threw for over 3,500 yards and had a 31/16 TD-INT ratio, both very good numbers by the standards of the time. Running back William Andrews and receiver Alfred Jenkins were both Pro Bowlers and 1,000-yard producers.
Junior Miller was a rookie who stepped in at tight end and added yet another happen, also earning a Pro Bowl lost. Across the front line, center Jeff Van Note and left tackle Matt Kenn would be similarly honored, Kenn as 1st-team All-Pro.
With this kind of talent throughout the lineup it’s not hard to see why the Falcons were the fifth-most prolific offense in the NFL.
The defense didn’t have the same standout talent, with no Pro Bowlers and three rookie starters. But with coordinator Jerry Glanville, a future head coach with the Houston Oilers and then back here in Atlanta calling the shots, the defense also ranked fifth in the NFL.
Atlanta had made the playoffs in 1978 for the first time in the Super Bowl era, but then slipped back to 6-10 in 1979, so the 1980 NFL season didn’t open with soaring expectations. A disappointing loss at Minnesota started the year, when a missed extra point was the difference in a 24-23 loss.
Bartkowski opened up the following week in New England. With the Falcons and Patriots in a 14-14 tie, The quarterback threw two consecutive touchdown passes to Miller and finished the day 19/30 for 244 yards. Andrews rolled for 124 yards and Atlanta pulled away to a 37-21 win. Bartkowski threw more two more touchdown passes in the following week’s home opener against the Miami Dolphins and put the Falcons ahead 17-3, but a defensive letdown at the end resulted in a 20-17 loss.
Atlanta didn’t play particularly well at San Francisco the following week, where the 49ers were still a team struggling to develop with Bill Walsh at coach and Joe Montana at quarterback. The Falcons were outplayed, but they won the turnover battle, playing a clean game themselves and getting two interceptions from outside linebacker Al Richardson. Atlanta stole a 20-17 win.
The Detroit Lions were next. Detroit had been the NFL’s worst in 1979, but jumped all the way to nine wins behind rookie running back Billy Sims. But Atlanta played its best game of the young season, scoring twice on defense, once on special teams and getting strong rushing from Andrews and Lynn Cain. The Falcons led 34-3 by the second quarter and won 43-28.
Consistency remained beyond their grasp though and at home against a bad New York Jets team, the Falcons were outrushed 190-97. Bartkowski was intercepted twice and even punter John James was picked off. The result was a 14-7 loss. Even when Atlanta blew out the New Orleans Saints 41-14 on the road, there wasn’t a lot of reason to get excited. The Saints would supplant the Lions as the NFL’s worst team.
October 26 brought the Los Angeles Rams to town. The Rams had reached the Super Bowl a year earlier and throughout the 1970s had been the standard in the old NFC West (the Rams, Falcons, 49ers and Saints). Atlanta was a (+3) underdog, even playing at home.
The game was a defensive battle and the Falcons trailed 10-6 in the fourth quarter. But they were able to find some running room for Andrews, who gained 111 yards. And that eventually opened up the passing game, with Bartkowski hitting Jenkins on a 54-yard touchdown pass and a 13-10 win.
Atlanta was now 5-3 and a big win in Buffalo, against a good Bills team built on the momentum. Despite falling behind 14-0 and Bartkowski throwing three interceptions, the Falcons muscled their way back into the game behind the running of Andrews and Cain. Then they pulled away, forcing five turnovers and winning 30-14.
The pattern of falling behind and coming back kept going at St. Louis, as the Cardinals took a 17-3 lead. Bartkowski found tight end Wallace Francis on a 27-yard touchdown pass to get back in the game and the quarterback kept right on rolling. He threw for 378 yards and Cain led a rushing attack that went for 209 yards. Atlanta won in overtime, 33-27.
Bartkowski carved up the Saints in an easy 31-13 home win, throwing three touchdown passes to three different receivers, with Andrews and Cain continuing to pound the football on the ground. The following week brought the mediocre Chicago Bears to town. Despite falling behind 10-0 and trailing 17-14 after three quarters, Bartkowski hit Jenkins from 42 yards out to get the lead and then flipped a nine-yard scoring pass to Andrews that iced a 28-17 win.
With six straight wins, the Falcons were 9-3, a game up on the Rams in the NFC West. Atlanta’s defense delivered the next win, at home against the Washington Redskins. The Falcons held the subpar Redskins to 85 yards rushing, forced three turnovers while committing none of their own and won the game 10-6.
Los Angeles was still directly in the rearview mirror, but Atlanta had a playoff berth all but wrapped up. The alignment of the time was a three-division format where two wild-card teams also advanced (the format MLB uses today). The Falcons/Rams in the West, and the Dallas Cowboys/Philadelphia Eagles in the East were in good shape, with the significant battles being over playoff position.
All that gave Atlanta’s December 7 trip to Philadelphia added juice, with both teams in first place in their divisions. The first break for the Falcons came in the weather—abnormally warm at 46 degrees. Even though they were a (+6) underdog and fell behind 14-3, Bartkowski again led the way back.
He found Francis on a touchdown pass before the half and Cain on another after the half. Andrews ran for 101 yards while Eagle counterpart Wilbert Montgomery was held to 43. Atlanta kicker Tim Mazzetti ultimately won it with a field goal, 20-17. On this same day, the Rams lost. The Falcons had a two-game lead in the division and they held the top seed in the NFC by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker with the Eagles.
Atlanta still needed to win at home against San Francisco, or the NFC West title could come down to a head-to-head battle in Los Angeles in the finale. After a season of digging themselves holes, the Falcons made this one easy—Bartkowski went 22/31 for 276 yards, Richardson recovered a fumble in the end zone and Atlanta sewed up the first-ever division crown with a 35-10 rout.
The #1 seed was still in play and the season finale had Falcons-Rams and Eagles-Cowboys going at the same time. But it was apparent early on that Dallas was going to win, locking Atlanta into the top spot and Los Angeles into going on the road to Dallas for the wild-card game. The Falcons and Rams played a good game and the nine-game Atlanta win streak came to an end, 20-17 in overtime, but it didn’t actually matter.
The Cowboys beat the Rams in the wild-card game and came to Atlanta on January 4 for the divisional playoff. The Falcons were a narrow (-2.5) favorite, but they led 24-10 after three quarters and 27-17 midway through the fourth quarter. Then it was time for the heartbreak.
Dallas had cut the lead to 27-24, but Atlanta had the ball and one first down would kill the clock. On third-and-short, Cowboy defensive lineman Too Tall Jones jumped offside, but was able to get back. To this day, Van Note regrets not immediately snapping the ball and forcing the penalty call that would have resulted in a game-clinching first down.
But in fairness to the center, the team’s season-long policy had been *not* to snap the ball in those situations, lest a fumble result. It’s a debatable policy, but not reasonable to expect Van Note to rapidly change course on the team’s most important play of the year.
Of course, it follows that Atlanta failed to pick up the first down, Dallas marched down and won the game. It stands as perhaps the third-most heartbreaking loss in franchise history, behind only the NFC Championship Game following the 2012 season and the Super Bowl loss to New England that ended 2016. This core group of Atlanta Falcons players would never again be a real championship contender.