The 1998 New England Patriots & Scott Zolak’s Finest Hour Against San Francisco

Scott Zolak's finest hour came with a late drive to beat San Francisco and put the 1998 Patriots in the playoffs.

Scott Zolak’s finest hour came with a late drive to beat San Francisco and put the 1998 Patriots in the playoffs.

The New England Patriots’ Sunday night battle with the San Francisco 49ers is a significant game for both teams as they angle for playoff position. The Patriots are playing to at least wrap up a first-round bye and possibly to get the AFC’s #1 seed. San Francisco is trying to hold off Seattle for the NFC West title. It’s not the first time these two interconference foes have played a significant game in Foxboro, with major playoff implications for both teams. On December 20, 1998, the Foxboro Faithful saw San Francisco come to town with the franchise’s third straight playoff berth on the line.

New England was a team in decline, after the Super Bowl run of 1996 and another AFC East title a year later. With Pete Carroll at the helm, the Patriots were now just fighting to hang on to a playoff spot. With an 8-6 record in late 1998, the Pats controlled their destiny to get to the postseason, but the path was not easy. Tennessee was also 8-6, with only New England’s September win over the team still known as the Oilers separating them in the standings. Oakland, Seattle and Pittsburgh were in pursuit at 7-7 and there was only one more playoff berth left in the AFC.

Furthermore, the Patriot path was a tough one. If they didn’t clinch their spot in this game, then the Jets—now coached by Bill Parcells and en route to a division title—lay in way for the finale. The organization had never made the playoffs three straight years and there was plenty of reason to be nervous about the chances of breaking the ice.

San Francisco had a much better team and was secure in their playoff spot, but they had a lot on the line. With an 11-3 record, the 49ers trailed the Falcons by one game for the NFC West title and the winner would secure the #2 seed opposite what looked to be a juggernaut in the Minnesota Vikings. San Francisco was quarterbacked by Steve Young, had Jerry Rice at receiver, was coached by George Seifert and these were still the days when it was Super Bowl-or-bust on the Bay. The Patriots would not get a break in terms of facing an unmotivated favorite.

If things could look any more bleak, we could add this—Drew Bledsoe was out and Scott Zolak, who hadn’t quarterbacked an NFL victory since 1992, was behind center. In spite of the game being in Foxboro with an early kick—a disadvantage for a West Coast team with the time differential—Las Vegas still installed the 49ers as a solid seven-point favorite.

New England running back Robert Edwards had been an unlikely hero all year, rushing for over 1,100 yards as a 24-year-old rookie and he quickly caught a 19-yard touchdown pass from Zolak to put the Pats on the board first. Young countered with a 75-yard-strike to Rice in the second quarter, but Zolak was proving surprisingly capable of holding his own in what would be a second quarter air war. He connected with Shawn Jefferson on a 61-yard-touchdown pass.

The Patriots' path to the playoffs led through Steve Young and Jerry Rice.

The Patriots’ path to the playoffs led through Steve Young and Jerry Rice.

Even so, Young threw a short touchdown pass to Terrell Owens. Then when the San Francisco quarterback had to briefly exit, backup Ty Detmer came in and threw his only pass of the game—a 25-yard-scoring play to Irv Smith that gave the Niners a 21-14 lead at halftime.

Patriot fans keeping abreast of developments around the league had reason to implore the team onward—Tennessee was losing in Green Bay at the same time. Brett Favre had thrown two long touchdown passes to Antonio Freeman in the first quarter, another in the second and the Pats’ main rival was in a 21-7 hole. If New England could rally, while Green Bay held on, it would clinch the playoffs.

The third quarter passed by scoreless, but the Patriot defense was doing an outstanding job in pressuring the pocket. Young was sacked five times by five different players, the key statistical difference n the game. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Edwards ran in from five yards out and the game was tied. Events in Green Bay were still progressing well, as the Packers had the Oilers at arm’s length and were en route to a 30-22 win made close only by a late Tennessee score.

The familiar sight of Adam Vinateri celebrating was a part of December 1998

The familiar sight of Adam Vinateri celebrating was a part of December 1998

With a chance to make his own small piece of NFL history, Zolak responded and moved the Patriots down to the San Francisco 18-yard-line with three seconds to play. Adam Vinateri came on. The man who would soon become known as the league’s greatest clutch kicker, put a down payment on future glory. His 35-yard-field goal won the game and New England was in the playoffs.

The loss would end San Francisco’s hopes of winning the NFC West, something that would prove costly when Atlanta beat them in a close second-round playoff game and then upset Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game.

As for New England, winning this game couldn’t arrest the long-term decline that wouldn’t stop until Bill Belichick took over and made Tom Brady his quarterback. Indeed, it would be the last win of the ’98 season, as they lost to the Jets and then to Jacksonville in the playoffs. But it was still a sweet moment, as the Patriots won a game in which the deck was stacked against them and made Scott Zolak the man of the hour, if only for a day.

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