If you believe in miracles, fairy tales and make-believe, then the Atlanta Falcons are your kind of team.
Three times in their 8-6 season, Coach Leeman Bennett's whiz kids have won a game in the last 10 seconds. They have blocked four punts, returning two of them for touchdowns and another for a safety. They have a shot at their first playoff appearance ever.
The Falcons also have a field-goal kicking bartender, Tim Mazzetti, who was cut by, in order this season, New England, Dallas, Philadelphia and New Orleans. In eight weeks as a Falcon, he has kicked 11 of 13 field goals. They have a quarterback, Steve Bartkowski, who used to look more for a place to fall down than he did for a receiver.
"I guess there are some funny things about this team," Bartkowski admitted yesterday.
The Washington Redskins don't have humor on their minds, though, as they prepare to meet the Falcons Sunday in Atlanta with an NFC wildcard playoff spot at stake.
Technically, even the loser will still have an outside chance of making it to the playoffs, but the winner will be in the driver's seat.
In Atlanta, they are calling it the most important game in the 13-year history of the franchise.
The Atlanta season has been one of the most unpredictable in the National Football League this year. It started like a typical Falcon year-terrible.
Bennett became disenchanted with Bartkowski in the exhibition season and decided to open the season with June Jones III.
Jones directed Atlanta to a 1-3 start and the strong-armed Bartkowski was summoned. Under Bartkowski, the Falcons have won seven of 10 games and have had an offense to go with their usually strong defense.
Bartkowski came back a new man. The forced idleness, much of which he spent sitting on his helmet during the games, opened his eyes, he said.
"I needed to analyze a lot of things in my life and put them in proper perspective, I knew the God-given talent was there, but I wasn't using it right. Before, everything was me, me, me. When I got to play again, I had my priorities straight," he said.
Bartkowski played in only 21 games because of injuries his first three seasons and that had much to do with his attitude.
"I was really concerned about staying healthy," he said, "maybe too concerned. I was trying to avoid hits and all sorts of things. I lost my concentration. I was looking for ways to avoid the rush more than I was reading defenses and trying to find a receiver. I was thinking about not getting hurt.
"When I wasn't playing, I had a chance to examine all of that and if it's in God's will that I'll get hurt, then I'll get hurt, but I can't worry about it."
A new Bartkowski also meant a new Atlanta team. It started believing in itself, and then those miracles started happening.
The first one came at San Francisco, Oct. 22. The Falcons were 3-4 at the time. They were down, 17-7, with eight minutes left and the ball on their own 20-yard line. Bartkowski rallied them and they won, 20-17, on a 29-yard field goal by Mazzetti with one second to play.
At New Orleans, Nov. 212, they were down, 17-7 again, with 3:12 to play and the ball at their own 20. Again Bartkowski rallied them and they scored the winning touchdown with four seconds left on a 57-yard pass that one wide receiver, Wallace Francis, tipped to another wide receiver, Alfred Jackson. That gave the Falcons a 7-4 record.
They lost at Chicago the following week but against New Orleans at Atlanta, they were down, 17-13, with 53 seconds left, the ball at their own 28 and no timeouts. Again, they won in the final seconds on a one-yard pass from Bartkowski to tight end Jim Mitchell.
The Falcons were bombed, 37-7. Sunday in Cincinnati, but even near the end of that one, Bartkowski said, everyone felt they would find a way to pull it out.
"We always feel we have a chance to win, no matter what," Bartkowski said. "Our guys just won't quit.
"When you work together a s a unit and have a defense that can play like ours, you are in every ball game right up to the end. With our defense, we don't have to go out and try to win every game. We can just try not to lose."
Redskin Coach Jack Pardee said he was pleased with his team's workout yesterday, especially since guard Ron Saul was able to practice. Saul has a bad ankle and a pulled groin muscle, but was able to work yesterday and Pardee said there is a better than 50-50 chance he will be available Sunday . . . Both quarterbacks. Joe Theismann and Billy Kilmer, had a lot of work as the 11-on-11 part of practice was extended. Theismann will be the starter . . . "This is the first time our backs have been truly against the wall." Pardee said. "In the past, that's when the Redskins have been their best. I hope it's the same with this team."