For a while Sunday against the hapless, hopeless and winless New Orleans Saints, it looked as if the Atlanta Falcons meant to do their teetering trick again. In six of their seven wins going into Sunday's game at Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium they had come from behind, sometimes by means of near miracles. It took a bomb in the final two minutes to beat Los Angeles, and two weeks ago the Falcons trailed St. Louis 24-6 at halftime before tying the Cardinals and then winning in overtime. Now, just four plays into the Saints game, they were behind again, 7-0.
Archie Manning had moved New Orleans 80 yards with ridiculous ease to that score, which came on a 26-yard pass from Manning to Wes Chandler, who found himself wide open behind an obviously confused Atlanta secondary. And after that, the NFC West-leading Falcons, who earlier in the week had been accused in an Atlanta newspaper of behaving like the overconfident hare in another celebrated race, played as though they were determined, this time, to let the opposition stay in front. Twice in the first quarter they reached the Saints' one-yard line. From those two drives, however, they netted only three points. In jeopardy was the one-game lead they held over the Rams' in their division.
But that, as it turned out, was as far as the Falcons were prepared to let the foolishness go. On this day, at least, they would need no miracle finish. They went ahead for good in the second quarter, held a 10-7 lead at halftime and from there on methodically put the Saints away, 31-13. The weapons were the same ones they have been using all season: the passing of Steve Bartkowski, the running of William Andrews and Lynn Cain, and the hard hitting of a young defense that is murder against the run. The victory, Atlanta's fifth straight, made its record 8-3 and, unhappily for the sports desk moralists, left the Falcons every reason to be overconfident about the future. For one thing, league rules say that each conference must send five teams into the playoffs, and at the moment there are only six in the whole NFC with winning records.
Bartkowski is enjoying his finest season. The 6'4", 213-pound, sixth-year quarterback put Atlanta in front to stay with five minutes left in the half on a perfectly thrown 47-yard pass to Wide Receiver Alfred Jackson. In the second half Bartkowski dived one yard for the Falcons' second touchdown and then threw two more scoring passes—five yards to Wide Receiver Wallace Francis and 10 yards to rookie Tight End Junior Miller. Bartkowski's job was made easier by the fact that the Saints were having so much trouble stopping the running of Cain and Andrews, who gained 93 and 79 yards, respectively. Rushing like that made Bartkowski's play-action passes work like magic.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta defense was allowing New Orleans just 82 yards running, the third straight week it had kept an opponent below the 100-yard mark. True, the secondary was giving up 235 yards in the air, but Atlanta has never claimed to have a pass defense. As one Falcon official put it last week, "If we had a secondary, we'd be dangerous."
The defense didn't yield the Saints' second touchdown, meaningless by then, until less than two minutes remained in the game. Most of the crowd of 53,871 had already departed, leaving a banner behind the south end zone that summed up their feelings. It said WE LOVE OUR NO. 1 FALCONS.
That sentiment represents a big turnaround for the Falcons, who were booed mercilessly in the early years of the franchise. In those days fumbles and interceptions often seemed part of the Falcon game plan. Firing coaches in midseason was standard practice, and the front office was the laughingstock of the league. The corporate name of the Falcons is The Five Smiths, Inc., after owner Rankin Smith's five children, but the way management operated, The Three Stooges, Inc. would have been more appropriate.
The football follies in Atlanta came to an abrupt end on Feb. 1, 1977, when Smith turned over control of the front office to Eddie LeBaron, the 5'5" former quarterback of the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys, who was practicing law in Las Vegas at the time. Two days later General Manager LeBaron hired Leeman Bennett, a Ram assistant, to be the Falcons' fourth coach in less than three years. Together with Player Personnel Director Tom Braatz, they quickly reversed the Falcons' fortunes. Atlanta finished 7-7 in '77 and in '78 made the playoffs for the first time, with a 9-7 record. Last year the team slipped to 6-10, but five of those losses were by less than seven points.
LeBaron defines his organizational philosophy this way: "Plan your work and work your plan." His plan, gleaned from his days with the Cowboys, is to concentrate on the draft and be patient while the players develop. Since he took over three years ago, Atlanta hasn't dealt away a single draft choice, while trading for seven belonging to other teams. In fact, both Andrews and Cain, who this season have rushed for more yards than any other tandem in the NFL, were chosen on draft picks acquired in trades.
Before they arrived last year, Atlantans hadn't seen a ground attack since Sherman marched his visiting team to the sea. The two newcomers seemed unlikely candidates to change that situation, because both had spent most of their time in college blocking for real running backs. At Auburn, Andrews had cleared paths for two such: Joe Cribbs, the Buffalo rookie who is the AFC's third-leading rusher, and James Brooks, who last week broke Cribbs' school career rushing record. Cain was the fullback who led the way for Charles White during White's junior year at USC.