Before the Patriots’ Dominate Decade
There’s no question we’re living through the Golden Age of the New England Patriots. But celebration of the era that began in 2001 shouldn’t stop us from an appreciation of the past. Because before Tedy Bruschi there was Andre Tippett. Before Vince Wilfork there was Sugar Bear Hamilton. Before Wes Welker there was Stanley Morgan. Before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick…all right, there wasn’t anybody before the quarterback and head coach worthy of being in the same sentence. But you get the general drift. This post is devoted to remembering previous Patriot teams who, even if they didn’t achieve glory, deserve kudos for success and bringing excitement to Boston sports fans.
We’ll start with the appropriate tip of the cap to the 1985 AFC championship team, the first New England team to reach the Super Bowl and the first team in NFL history to win three straight road games in the playoffs, including a big win in Miami’s Orange Bowl to cap off the AFC playoffs. And we also acknowledge the 1996 team that also reached the Super Bowl, beating Pittsburgh and Jacksonville. But it seems a little too easy to default to two conference champions in looking for under-the-radar moments in franchise lore. Here are three more editions of the Pats that didn’t scale the heights, but were still fun to watch…
*The 1986 Patriots were slow out of the gate in trying to get back to the Super Bowl and started 3-3. Meanwhile the Jets were flying high at 10-1. But the Pats reeled off six straight wins. And as they got to 9-3 and put the heat on in the Eastern Division race, the wheels came off for New York. The Jets, amazingly would not win the rest of the season and back into a wild-card spot at 10-6. New England stumbled a bit at the end, losing two straight and looking ready to look a gift division title in the mouth. But in the final game they went to the Orange Bowl and established definitively that any Miami Curse was truly eradicated, winning 34-27 and bringing home the AFC East with the same 11-5 record the previous year’s Super Bowl team posted.
Unfortunately this year’s team had to deal with John Elway in the playoffs, as the Denver gunslinger made his second postseason appearance. On the road in Mile High Stadium, the Pats were in position to win a divisional playoff game. When they jumped offsides and fell asleep after the whistle blew, Elway took advantage of the free play and threw a 48-yard touchdown pass that was the difference in a 22-17 game. It was still a good year under the leadership of Raymond Berry and contributed to a great year in Boston sports, as the Celtics won the NBA title and the Red Sox won the American League pennant.
*The rebuilding project of Bill Parcells didn’t seem to be working out too well more than halfway into the 1994 season. The Patriots were sitting on a 3-6 record and the Parcells/Drew Bledsoe era was in danger of ending before it began. New England caught fire, won seven in a row and ended the season by beating playoff-bound Chicago on the road to secure a wild-card berth at 10-6. They lost to Cleveland in the first playoff game, but Pats fans had gotten a glimpse of both the short-term and long-term future. The groundwork was in place for the Super Bowl run that would take place two years later. And the Cleveland coach who ousted them was Belichick.
*After a ho-hum 2-2 start, the 1978 Patriots rattled off six straight wins and took firm control of the AFC East. In a snowstorm against Buffalo they pulled out a 26-24 win to wrap up the division with an 11-3 record. That was the last good thing that happened to this team. They lost their final two games, although it didn’t cost them the #2 seed and a home game in the divisional playoffs. Prior to the season finale in Miami, head coach Chuck Fairbanks was suspended for talking to the University of Colorado about its coaching position, a job he would take (with little success). Though the Sullivan Family reinstated Fairbanks for the playoffs the team looked lifeless in a 31-14 loss to the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans). It was a tough ending to a season that had a tragic beginning–the paralysis of receiver Daryl Stingley during a preseason game. And the collapse at the end fit an all-to-common theme in Hub sports during this year of Bucky Bleepin’ Dent.
There are other worthy teams. Foremost among them is the 1976 squad that went 11-3 and might have reached the Super Bowl if not robbed of a playoff win in Oakland by questionable officiating down the stretch. But the seasons of 1986, 1994 and 1978 deserve to be remembered in the pantheon of Boston sports lore.