By Sam McPherson

For many years, the San Francisco 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons were division rivals in the old NFC West Division format that existed from 1970 through 2001. Twice a year, the two teams faced each other, and during those 32 seasons in the same division, the 49ers and the Falcons won a combined 19 division championships. Usually, it was San Francisco getting the best of Atlanta, thanks to Joe Montana and Steve Young, but the Falcons had plenty of moments throughout the rivalry, including one very memorable game from 1983.

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As the 49ers get ready to play in Atlanta this weekend, it’s hard to forget the Billy “White Shoes” Johnson game from Week 12 that season, so many years ago. Montana was trying to prove that the Super Bowl XVI championship had been no fluke, despite San Francisco missing the postseason the year after. The Falcons had finished with the best record in the NFC West twice in the previous three seasons (1980, 1982), but they were struggling under a new head coach. This match-up wasn’t for division bragging rights at the time, but it turned out to be a game neither franchise would forget, as Atlanta won the game on a controversial, final-play Hail Mary touchdown pass.

Bartkowski vs. Montana

The two quarterbacks in the game represented interesting opposites: Atlanta’s Steve Bartkowski had been a golden boy at California in college, and he came through for the Falcons with two straight Pro Bowl seasons in 1980 and 1981. In that first Pro Bowl season, Bartkowski led Atlanta to its first-ever division title and only its second NFL playoff appearance.

Meanwhile, Montana had shown brilliantly at Notre Dame and ended up on the West Coast with the 49ers, leading them to the 1981 NFL title while making the Pro Bowl himself that same season. These were two great QBs in the eyes of Bay Area football fans, and even though Bartkowski would go on to lead the NFL in QB rating in 1983, Montana had the Super Bowl MVP Award under his belt already.

The game was a back-and-forth affair, as San Francisco took a 14-0 lead only to see Atlanta tie it up before halftime. The 49ers took a three-point lead in the third quarter, before the Falcons scored a TD to take a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter. Both QBs had excellent games in this specific match-up: Montana was 21-for-28 with 182 yards and a TD, while Bartkowski completed 28-of-39 attempts for 301 yards and two TDs. Montana did add 38 yards rushing and a scoring run in the fourth that gave the 49ers what seemed to be the permanent lead, but Bartkowski came up with the biggest play of the game at the end to secure the 28-24 victory.

The Stat Sheet

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A quick glance at the statistical box score for this game reveals the Falcons should have won the game, anyway. Atlanta out-gained San Francisco 373-308, and the 49ers committed the game’s only turnovers—including a fumble that the Falcons returned for a second-quarter TD to tie the game at the time. Also, Atlanta won the time of possession battle, holding the ball for seven more minutes than San Francisco did. Usually, teams that end up on the high side of the yardage, turnover and TOP ledger win the ball game.

However, it took a miracle on the last play of the game for the Falcons to win, despite all the statistical advantages. The 49ers were just a better team in 1983, in truth. San Francisco came into the game with a 7-4 record, while Atlanta was struggling with a 4-7 record. This disparity in team quality was reflected in the penalty category on the stat sheet: The Falcons were whistled for 73 yards on eight penalties, while the 49ers were only flagged three times for a total of 14 yards. That was the difference in the game, until the final play rendered it all moot.

The Hail Mary Itself

Billy Johnson had built his reputation as an electric kick returner who celebrated his TDs with a funky end-zone dance, one of the first NFL players to truly establish a routine after scoring. He would make his third Pro Bowl in 1983, while leading the Falcons in receptions with 64 catches. With two seconds left in the game and the Falcons on the San Francisco 47-yard line, everyone expected Johnson to get the ball, but the question was whether Bartkowski would throw deep to him or throw short, and let Johnson weave his way through the 49ers defense.

Bartkowski threw deep on designed play called “Big Ben Left,” and a group of players from both teams went up for the ball inside the five-yard line. When the ball was batted toward the ground outside the five-yard line, Johnson was there to catch the ball. He backtracked toward the eight-yard line to avoid getting hit before turning back toward the end zone and being tackled as the ball crossed the goal line. The big question was whether or not his knee was down before the ball crossed the proverbial plane of the goal line, but the officials signaled touchdown. Just like that, the Falcons had won the game.

“Big Ben Left” Aftermath

The replays seem to show that Johnson was down before scoring, but in an era of no replay review, the 49ers were out of luck. San Francisco’s record dropped to 7-5, which was a disappointment after a 6-2 start to the season. The 49ers would lose again the following week before winning their final three games to finish at 10-6 while winning the NFC West. San Francisco edged Detroit in a home playoff game at Candlestick Park before dropping the NFC Championship Game on the road to the defending Super Bowl champs from Washington. Of course, the 49ers would go on to win three more Super Bowls in the 1980s, making this game a small hiccup in the grand scheme of things.

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Meanwhile, the Falcons won a second straight thriller the following week, in overtime against Green Bay, but then Atlanta lost two straight to fall out of playoff contention. The Falcons finished a disappointing 7-9 and wouldn’t make the postseason again until 1991. Atlanta made its only Super Bowl appearance in 1998, but the Falcons have a chance again this year with the top scoring offense in the NFL behind QB Matt Ryan. Surely, Atlanta hopes the San Francisco offense won’t come up with its own Hail Mary miracle on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.