Patriots-Jets History: New England’s First Monday Night Win
The New England Patriots renew their rivalry with the New York Jets this afternoon at 4:30 PM ET. It’s a series whose intense heat has caught the eye of the national media. We can mark the last 16 years as a high point of the Patriots-Jets wars—from the fallout between Bill Parcells and Robert Kraft, the bad blood over Curtis Martin to Bill Belichick’s returning to Foxboro, to Spygate and on to Rex, there’s no shortage of storylines to latch onto.
But before any of this, there was a Monday Night in 1976. It was a time when the Patriots were still looking to carve a niche for themselves in a town where the Celtics won titles every year, the Bruins were a perennial contender and the Red Sox a year removed from the World Series. The local NFL team, on the other hand, hadn’t delivered a winning season in ten years.
It was right around this time of year that the Jets visited Foxboro for Monday Night Football—October 18, 1976. Coming into this game, the Patriots had never won a prime-time football game. Keep in mind that MNF came into existence in 1970 and there weren’t Thursday night games being played. New England had only played two Monday Night games and lost both times.
There were some signs that 1976 had the potential to be different. The Pats split two home games to open the year against the Baltimore Colts and Miami Dolphins, then won two straight over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. Not only was New England 3-1, but the games had come against what were the traditional top four teams in the entire AFC. A letdown followed though, and a 30-10 loss to lowly Detroit surely caused some thoughts of “same old Pats” to go through the fan base.
The Jets were on hard times, having not seriously contended in the decade, but they still had one of the sport’s marquee names, in 33-year-old quarterback Joe Namath. They had two young players who would ultimately be solid contributors to playoff teams in center Joe Fields and linebacker Greg Buttle. Still, there was no denying that this was a game that New England needed to win if they were going to persuade anyone they were for real and getting their first Monday Night win ever would be an added benefit.
If you looked at the talent on offense there was reason to believe. Steve Grogan was in his second year as the quarterback, and he had three first-round picks at the skill spots. Sam Cunningham was at fullback, Russ Francis at tight end and Daryl Stingley at receiver. The latter, of course saw his career end in the most tragic way possible when he was paralyzed two years later. Right now, times were good and Stingley was a key receiver on a rising young team.
The offensive line was anchored by future Hall of Famer John Hannah, and while the defense lacked the same kind of name talent, another future member of Canton was in the lineup in cornerback Mike Haynes.
Patriots’ head coach Chuck Fairbanks had the horses, but he needed to make them go consistently. Fairbanks had made his own reputation as a college coach at Oklahoma in an age when parity in college football was non-existent. While the NFL was certainly not as parity-driven as it was today, it was just as surely more than the de facto two-game seasons Fairbanks had enjoyed in Norman. Losses like the one the previous week to Detroit might have led one to wonder if the coach could keep his team focused in a league where bad teams still had the talent to beat you (at least that’s what I’d have wondered if I’d been older than six at the time this game was played).
To say the fans were out in force would understate the case. The police would be kept on their toes, with mass arrests for rowdy behavior—so much in fact, that they ran out of room and had to handcuff people to a chain-link fence by the stadium. The game would end up enshrined in history as “Monday Night Madness.”
When it was time to play, the Patriots wasted little time in answering any questions one might have had about them. They dominated the trenches from the outset and Andy Johnson staked them to an early 7-0 lead with a short touchdown run. Johnson then caught a 10-yard scoring pass from Grogan and New England took a 20-zip lead into the locker room.
The running attack continued to annihilate the Jets and Grogan was very much a part of it. The quarterback would rush for 103 yards on the night and get 41 of them on a third-quarter touchdown jaunt that stretched the lead to 27-0.
Namath threw a third-quarter touchdown pass, but New England tacked on two more scores and the game ended 41-7. The final rushing tally was 330 yards for the Patriots. They averaged better than seven yards a carry.
New England had made their point to a national audience and secured their first MNF win. The good times were just beginning, as they finished the season 11-3, including another takedown of the Jets in November.
The season was part of what was a successful run in the late 1970s—they didn’t get postseason wins, but fans got to enjoy consistent winning football for the first time in a decade. A Monday Night in October against what is today a hated rival sent a message to the country that a new era was underway.