After coming off a breakout year that saw them make the playoffs and come within one questionable call of advancing, the 1977 New England Patriots had high expectations. They just took too long to get started, with a late surge coming up short in an era when only four teams per conference made the playoffs.
Head coach Chuck Fairbanks built his offense around the running game, with 1,000-yard rusher Sam Cunningham leading the way and Don Calhoun’s 700-plus yards providing support. Steve Grogan, the 24-year-old quarterback completed 52% of his passes, above the league norm and believe it or not, his 17/21 TD-INT ratio was better than the NFL average (14/20) in 1977. And Grogan brought some big-play capability, a 7.1 yards-per-attempt nearly two yards better than the league standard.
Cunningham led the team in receptions out of the backfield, but the downfield game was improved on the previous year. Stanley Morgan averaged 21 yards-per-catch, and Darryl Stingley began to come into his own, with 39 catches and 657 yards receiving. Russ Francis was a Pro Bowler at tight end.
In spite of this, New England’s offense dropped from second in the NFL in 1976 to ninth in 1977. Andy Johnson was missing from the three-headed backfield that spearheaded the team’s 11-3 season of a year earlier, but more than that, the play on the offensive line took a step back. This would be one of the few years were the great left guard John Hannah missed the Pro Bowl, as did talented left tackle Leon Gray.
The defense wasn’t loaded with talent, but they had a terrific lockdown corner in Pro Bowler Mike Haynes, who also excelled as a return man. The Patriots defense also ranked ninth in the league.
SLOW OUT OF THE GATE
New England opened the season at home against a terrible Kansas City Chiefs team and promptly dug themselves a 14-0 hole. Stingley stepped up with two touchdowns, one a 34-yard run and another the more conventional route, a 21-yard pass from Grogan. Cunningham and Calhoun combined for 186 yards on the ground in a 21-17 win.
The shaky game against a bad opponent foreshadowed trouble though. The Patriots went to Cleveland for a Monday Night game. The Browns had competed for a playoff berth to the bitter end in 1976, although they would slip under .500 this season. The Patriots jumped ahead 17-7, but tonight it was the opponent who controlled the ground game.
Greg Pruitt ran over the Pats for 151 yards and New England lost 30-27 in overtime. The following week at old Shea Stadium against the Jets—who were starting a 3-11 season—New England’s rush defense was better, but they still couldn’t’ run it themselves. Grogan threw three interceptions, they lost two more fumbles and suffered another 30-27 loss.
The Seattle Seahawks were only in their second year of existence at a time and their visit to Foxboro was just what the doctor ordered. New England held Seattle to six first downs, picked off quarterback Steve Myer four times—two by Haynes—and coasted to a 31-0 win. The Patriots then went west to San Diego and got 256 yards rushing, 141 from Cunningham. Control of the trenches was enough for a 24-20 win.
A year earlier, New England and the Baltimore Colts had battled to the end for the AFC East title, and the Colts were again playing well. In a late afternoon start at Foxboro, the Patriot defense played its best game of the season. They held Colt quarterback Bert Jones—the reigning MVP—to 6/18 for 64 yards. Grogan was 11/16 for 214 yards and no interceptions, doing most of his damage with Stingley in a 17-13 win.
Grogan and Stingley continued to click in the rematch with the Jets. Grogan was 16/23 for 228 yards and three touchdowns, with Stingley catching eight of those passes for 116 yards. The result was a 24-13 win and with a 5-2 record, the Patriots were back on track.
Then they went off the rails again. Buffalo was in middle of a lousy season, but came into New England and picked off Grogan four times. One of them was a Pick-6 in the third quarter at a time the Patriot deficit was still a manageable 17-7. The final was 24-14. Grogan then went to Miami were he had a hard time getting the ball downfield consistently. The running game was quiet and the Patriots lost 17-5 to the Dolphins.
The prognosis was not promising for New England’s playoff hopes. At 5-4, they were three games back of Baltimore, whose only loss had come in Foxboro. Miami was in between at 7-2. There was only one wild-card spot open and with the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders each having big seasons in the AFC West, that avenue didn’t look much better.
Cunningham took over the following week at Buffalo. The Patriots trailed 7-6 in the third quarter, when Cunningham rumbled 31 yards for one touchdown and then scored from a yard out. The ultimate rush edge was 256-112 and Grogan’s 81 yards was actually best on the team in a 20-7 win. Miami lost at Cincinnati to give New England a glimmer of hope.
Grogan came out firing at home against a subpar Philadelphia Eagles team on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. He went 64 yards to Morgan in the first quarter and then 16 yards to Stingley in the second quarter, putting the Patriots up 14-0 and the defense took it over from there in a 14-6 win. Baltimore lost at Denver and the AFC East race again modestly tightened.
A visit to mediocre Atlanta almost undercut the momentum. New England trailed 10-9 in the fourth quarter before Grogan found Morgan on a 33-yard touchdown pass. The ultimate reason for a 16-10 win was a defense that picked off Falcon quarterback Steve Bartkowski four times, two coming from Haynes.
Elsewhere in the AFC East, there was a big Colts-Dolphins battle going down and New England got what they needed. Miami won. The Patriots 8-4 record now had them just a game back of the two teams they were chasing and the Dolphins were coming to Foxboro.
New England’s rush defense was simply dominant, holding to Miami to 25 yards on the ground. The Patriots got early running touchdowns from Ike Forte and Cunningham. With the lead and the defense playing well, Grogan only threw ten passes and the Pats salted away a 14-10 win.
They still needed more breaks and got a big one when Baltimore lost at home to the mediocre Detroit Lions. Suddenly, against all odds, New England was in a three-way tie for first entering the final week of the season when they would play Baltimore head-to-head.
The problem was that the Patriots were faring poorly in tiebreakers. The losses to the Bills and Jets meant that New England had an inferior division record to Miami. While the Pats could take care of the Colts themselves, they needed the Dolphins to lose. The losses to bad AFC teams also meant New England had no chance to catch Oakland, who was 10-3, for the wild-card. The Raiders won in any case.
New England knew their fate by the time they took the field in old Memorial Stadium. Miami had played on Saturday and beaten Buffalo. The Patriots were eliminated.
They could still play spoiler, as the Colts had the tiebreaker edge on the Dolphins and were playing for the AFC East title. New England jumped out to a 21-3 lead in the third quarter, but the pass defense came apart. Jones carved them up for 340 yards, never threw an interception and rallied Baltimore to a 30-24 win.
Missing the playoffs was a disappointment, although by the standards of today, the Patriots would have been the 6-seed. The good news was this—the franchise still had a season that just two years earlier would have been considered wildly successful, and in 1978, they would climb to the top of the AFC East.