Even Coach Dick Vermeil hinted at the law of averages after his Philadelphia Eagles took advantage of three turnovers and survived a last-quarter scare tonight before finally defeating Atlanta, 16-13.
Following three straight losses to the Falcons, the Eagles (5-0) used a circus catch in the end zone by Charlie Smith and three field goals by Tony Franklin to beat Atlanta and remain the only unbeaten, untied team in the National Football League.
"A couple of times in the past, we were unfortunate when we lost to them, but tonight we were fortunate to win," Vermeil said. "We didn't move the ball as well as we wanted, but then we've never been able to move the ball well against Atlanta."
The Falcons (3-2) outgained Philadelphia, 339-268 yards, and had a 22-14 advantage in first downs. But they couldn't make the big play when they were in scoring position.
Interceptions by linebackers Al Chesley and Reggie Wilkes stopped two first-quarter scoring threats by Atlanta and a fumble halted another drive at the end of the third quarter.
Despite the turnovers, the Falcons apparently had tied the game midway through the fourth quarter when Alfred Jenkins made a leaping catch of Steve Bartkowski's pass in the end zone with the Eagles leading, 16-10. However, center Jeff Van Note was detected holding and the play was nullified.
Bartkowski misthrew on second and third down and the Falcons were forced to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Mick Luckhurst.
Atlanta never got another chance as the Eagles, aided by a roughing the kicker penalty, used up the last 6:38 with 13 plays.
Luckhurst, a rookie from the University of California, made a 35-yarder earlier, but his 19-yard attempt bounced off the left upright late in the second quarter when the Falcons were trying desperately to get back in the game.
"That was a big play when they missed that field goal," Verneil said. "They had a bad snap and sometimes those things turn out to make the difference. We were very fortunate tonight that we got the turnovers and didn't make any ourselves. Except on that kickoff."
That kickoff came after Atlanta's first field goal.Wally Henry fumbled when hit by Neal Musser. Kenny Johnson, a second-year cornerback from Mississippi State, scooped up the loose ball on the first hop and ran 20 yards untouched into the end zone.
"That was a 10-point play and really turned the momentum around," said Eagle Ron Jaworski, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 161 yards. "All of a sudden it was 13-10 and I couldn't help but think of those three last-quarter losses to them. I guess tonight was just our turn."
It was hardly a time for boasting in the Eagles' dressing room.
"It feels super to finally beat these guys," Jaworski said. "In the three previous games, they made the big plays in the fourth quarter, this time we did."
Atlanta overcame a 13-0 lead to pull out a 14-13 victory over the Eagles in the 1978 NFC wild-card playoff game, then came back from a 10-7 deficit to win a Monday night game, 14-10, here two years ago. Last season, the Falcons dealt the Eagles their only loss in Philadelphia, 20-17, after trailing, 14-3, at intermission.
"One win doesn't make up for all those losses," Jaworski said. "Besides, there's a good chance we'll meet those guys again down the road."
If the Falcons are going to return to the playoffs, they are going to have to score more. Although they controlled the ball throughout most of the first half, they went to the dressing room trailing, 13-0.
The Falcons took the opening kickoff and methodically moved downfield before Chesley, a former star at Eastern High in Washington, D.C., intercepted a pass on his eight-yard line and returned it 31 yards.
The Eagles quickly capitalized when Jaworski connected with Harold Carmichael for a 38-yard gain and Franklin made the first of his three field goals, a 36-yarder.
Wilkes' interception of a pass deflected by Carl Hairston led to Philadelphia's second field goal, a 34-yarder with 1:25 left in the first period.
The Eagles' only touchdown came when Charlie Smith made a diving catch of a 30-yard pass from Jaworski with 1:31 remaining in the half.
"I had to throw it before I wanted to because they had a blitz on," Jaworski said. "I was just hoping that Charlie could turn around and make the play."
The Falcons finally scored midway through the third quarter, but Coach Leeman Bennett had to be disappointed that his team only got three points after getting a first down on the Philadelphia 16.
The fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff put the Falcons back in the game, but despite, a 23-for-46 passing performance by Bartkowski, they never were able to get into the end zone again.