The franchise had never made the Super Bowl, or even an AFC Championship Game. The last playoff appearance had been in the strike-torn year of 1982. They had undergone a coaching change mid-season in 1984. There was nothing to suggest history in the making, but that’s what the 1985 New England Patriots made, becoming the first team to reach the Super Bowl with three road playoff wins.
Head coach Raymond Berry had made his fame as the top receiver of the legendary Johnny Unitas back in their days with the Baltimore Colts. But it would be running the football that would define these Patriots at their most critical moments.
The offensive line was anchored by left guard John Hannah, one of the greatest offensive lineman to ever play football and still a 1st-team All-NFL player at age 34. Left tackle Brian Holloway was another Pro Bowler, as they cleared the way for Craig James and Tony Collins. James ran for over 1,200 yards and made the Pro Bowl himself. Collins rushed for 657 and was a threat catching the ball, with 52 receptions for 549 more yards.
Andre Tippett gave the Patriots’ 3-4 defensive scheme the requisite monster at outside linebacker. Tippett, who played with a disruptive force exceeded only by the incomparable Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, recorded 16 ½ sacks and was 1st-team All-NFL. On the opposite side, outside linebacker Don Blackmon got 8 ½ more sacks.
An aggressive defensive requires a corner who can lock down in coverage and that’s what Raymond Clayborn did. Another Pro Bowler, Clayborn intercepted six passes. Free safety Fred Marion picked off seven in a Pro Bowl campaign of his own.
Collectively, the defense ranked sixth in the NFL. With this caliber of D, and the ability to run the football, playing quarterback was an ideal job. But instability was a problem behind center. Tony Eason opened as the starter, but veteran Steve Grogan was waiting in the wings for the chance to reclaim the job he once held.
Whomever played quarterback had limited receiving targets. Irving Fryar, the first overall pick in the 1984 draft, made the Pro Bowl, but that was as much for his punt return talents as it was his receiving skills. He was respectable, with 39 catches for 670 yards, but not a true #1 receiver. The same could be said for Stanley Morgan, who finished with 760 yards. The good news was that both had speed and could keep a defense on its heels.
The season opened at home against a mediocre Packers team. There was no sign of quarterback problems, as Eason went 21/28 for 241 yards. James took over on a 65-yard touchdown run. In spite of losing four fumbles, New England built a 26-6 lead in the fourth quarter and hung on to win 26-20.
James made another big play, with a 90-yard touchdown reception in Chicago. The problem was, it came with the Patriots trailing 20-0 in the fourth quarter and was the only sign of life the Pats’ offense showed all day in a 20-7 loss, as they rushed for 27 yards. But in fairness, the 1985 Chicago Bears were starting a season where they would do this to a lot of people and they weren’t done with the Patriots.
A trip to woeful Buffalo was next, and New England was sluggish, leading just 10-7 until Fryar broke an 85-yard punt return to seal an ultimate 17-14 win. A sloppy home game against the Los Angeles Raiders followed. The Pats turned it over four times, gave up three defensive touchdowns, watched Eason complete just 13/36 passes and they lost 35-20. The Raiders were on their way to a big year, but they hadn’t seen the last of these Patriots.
It didn’t look anything special was brewing in Foxboro though after another loss followed. New England went to Cleveland. The Browns were a mediocre team, even though they would sneak into the postseason at 8-8 thanks to an awful division. Eason played reasonably well, going 20/38 for 340 yards and Morgan caught six passes for 140 yards.
But this time the Patriots were outplayed in the trenches. They didn’t create holes on offense, they didn’t pressure the quarterback on defense and they lost the football game 24-20 to slip to 2-3.
The Bills made their return trip to Foxboro and it would be a seminal point in the season. After throwing two interceptions, Eason got the hook. Grogan came in and promptly went 15/19 for 282 yards, repeatedly hooking up with Fryar. Despite the poor start, the Patriots won 14-3.
A big home game with the contending New York Jets was next. Grogan didn’t play well overall, going 11/32 for 171 yards. But the defense kept the team in it and the game was tied 6-6 after three quarters. The quarterback then delivered at money time, throwing for one touchdown, running for another and leading the way to a 20-13 win. New England followed it up with a 32-14 rout at lowly Tampa Bay, behind a 197-79 rush edge and 14/21 for 237 yards performance from Grogan.
Any doubt that the Patriots were coming were eliminated when the defending AFC champion Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino came to town. In the wind and the rain, the Pats trailed 13-3 in the fourth quarter. It was New England who had a ground game, winning the rushing battle 203-91. And it was Grogan, not Marino, who came through in the final quarter. Grogan tossed a 28-yard touchdown pass, ran for another and stole a 17-13 win.
Riding high at 6-3, the Patriots blasted the subpar Colts in a 34-15 home win. The receivers came up big—Fryar caught one touchdown pass and returned a punt to the house, while Morgan added seven catches for 120 yards.
Grogan’s fourth quarter magic continued at Seattle. The Seahawks had been in the playoffs each of the past two years, though they slipped to 8-8 this season. New England trailed 13-7, but Grogan first hit James on a 23-yard touchdown pass and then hooked up with Fryar for another to keep the winning streak alive.
On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, Grogan’s magic finally crashed hard—he broke his leg at the Meadowlands against the Jets in a battle for first place. Eason was summoned. The defense kept the team in the game with some red-zone stops, forcing New York to settle for field goals. Eason would eventually heat up and go 23/34 for 210 yards and force overtime at 13-13. But the Jets still pulled it out. The win streak was over and Eason had to regain everyone’s confidence as December beckoned.
It was a three-way dogfight in the AFC East. The Patriots and Dolphins were each 8-4 and chasing the 9-3 Jets. With two wild-cards available, the runner-up in the Broncos/Raiders AFC West race, where both teams were also 8-4, would be in the mix.
New England took care of their business at Indianapolis (prior to 2002 the Colts were in the AFC East, along with the division’s four current teams). It wasn’t always pretty, as fourteen Patriot penalties let the inferior team stay in the game. But Eason went 20/29 for 293 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 38-31 win and give everyone a shot in the arm. The Jets had lost on Thanksgiving at Detroit, so the Pats and Dolphins each moved into a three-way tie for first.
New England hosted Detroit and were able to take care of the Lions with the old-fashioned ground game. James keyed a 216-105 edge in rush yardage for a 23-6 win. Both AFC East rivals won, but the biggest immediate significance was that the Raiders beat the Broncos for the AFC West lead.
This worked to New England’s advantage—they had the tiebreaker on Denver and did not on Los Angeles. And now the Pats, along with the rest of the AFC East, had a one-game advantage on the Broncos. There was at least some cushion in the wild-card race.
A big Monday Night date was up in Miami for the season’s penultimate game. The teams took the field knowing the Jets had already lost to the Bears and first place was on the line. In this time period, going to the old Miami Orange Bowl for the Patriots was akin to the Red Sox going to Yankee Stadium. Things just didn’t end well. And this Monday Night was no different.
Eason struggled with three interceptions and New England fell behind 27-13. But he also turned 14 completions into 217 yards and cut the lead to 27-20. When the Patriots subsequently recovered a fumbled punt at the Dolphin 15 and ran it for the tying touchdown, it looked their Orange Bowl luck might finally be changing. This was the year that luck would change, but not tonight. Miami won it 30-27 on a late field goal.
New England entered the season finale against the mediocre Cincinnati Bengals with their playoff fate able to swing any number of directions. They could win the AFC East and rise as high as the #2 seed, although that would require both the Dolphins and Jets losing. The Patriots could also miss the postseason and when Denver beat Seattle on a Friday night it affirmed that New England was indeed playing a win-or-go-home game for the home fans on Sunday.
Two more games on Saturday impacted the Patriots-Bengals matchup. When the Jets beat the Browns it ended whatever faint hopes New England had of stealing the AFC East. But the Steelers loss to the Giants also ended the AFC Central race in Cleveland’s favor, due to a confluence of tiebreakers with Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati. The Bengals now had nothing to play for and the Patriots had everything.
New England was also the superior team in any case, and James pounded away for 142 yards on the ground. The Pats led 20-6 at halftime, with Eason finding Morgan on a 50-yard touchdown pass. The lead was cut to 20-16 in the fourth quarter but the New England ground game re-asserted itself. The Pats finished with 281 rushing yards and backup Robert Weathers took off on a 42-yard touchdown run that sealed the deal in the 34-23 win. They were back in the playoffs.
Round Three with the Jets got it started. The teams were seen as essentially even, but New York’s tiebreaker edge had them at home and the Patriots were a three-point underdog.
Winds were blowing at 20mph on a dank December day in Jersey. The Patriots got an early field goal. After the Jets took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, New England answered with another field goal and then Eason hit Morgan on a 36-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-7 at the half.
New England launched a deep drive to start the second half, but bogged down on the three-yard line. Even so, the field goal extended the lead to two possessions, at 16-7. And they were running their game plan to perfection. Eason was efficient, and ultimately finished the day at 12/16 for 179 yards and no interceptions. Meanwhile, the Jets turned it over four times and none was more costly than the fumble Patriot linebacker Johnny Rembert returned 15 yards for a touchdown.
It was 23-7 and still the third quarter, but in the era prior to the two-point conversion, this was a three-possession game now. Then Jets’ quarterback Ken O’Brien, one of the most pinpoint passers in the league in 1985, left with a concussion. The game was all but over and it ended 26-14.
New England now traveled west to face the top-seeded Raiders in a late Sunday afternoon tilt that would bring the divisional round of the playoffs to a conclusion. Oddsmakers said Los Angeles was a 5 ½ point favorite.
Eason struck first with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Lin Dawson. Then the Raiders got rolling. They scored 17 straight points, including an 11-yard touchdown run by their MVP running back Marcus Allen. In a wild second quarter, the Patriots immediately rallied back, with a short touchdown run by James and a field goal to tie it up. The Raiders still got a field goal of their own to end the half with a 20-17 lead.
New England wasn’t stopping Allen on the ground, where he ran for 121 yards. What the Patriots were doing was preventing the extremely versatile back from being a part of the passing game where he caught just three passes for eight yards. Raider quarterback Marc Wilson had the same inconsistency issues that had dogged Eason and with his security blanket taken away, Wilson threw three interceptions.
The Patriots also recovered four fumbles and the biggest one came after a third-quarter field goal tied it 20-20. The ensuing kickoff was fumbled and defensive back Jim Bowman tracked the loose ball down in the end zone for a gift touchdown. It was 27-20. With New England getting James going, for 104 yards, and their defense playing well, the game ended there without a serious threat by the Raiders.
It meant another Round Three and this time in the franchise’s House of Horrors. The Patriots were going back to the Orange Bowl on what would prove to be a rainy late Sunday afternoon. And for the second week in a row, they were a 5 ½ point dog.
A drive inside the 10-yard line resulted in just a field goal for New England, not a good sign against the high-powered Dolphin offense. Marino answered with a second-quarter touchdown pass, but Eason came right back, flipping short TD passes to Collins and tight end Derrick Ramsey to make it 17-7.
And before the half was over, Miami had their own red-zone problem. A dropped TD pass was followed by a blown field goal and the ten-point lead held into the locker room.
Eason wasn’t exactly lighting it up—he would finish the game 10/21 for 71 yards, but if Fantasy Leagues had been in vogue in 1985, the quarterback’s day would have been huge, as he threw his third touchdown pass of four yards or less, connecting with Weathers in the third quarter to make it 24-7.
Miami had been in this spot the previous week against Cleveland, trailing 21-3 as a home favorite. Marino turned it loose in time to save that game and when the Pats fumbled a punt and set up a quick Dolphin touchdown in the fourth quarter, the wailing surely began across the six states of New England.
But just as the Red Sox eventually solved Yankee Stadium, the Patriots would solve the Orange Bowl. A three-pronged rushing attack, with James, Weathers and Collins leading the way to a 255-68 demolition in ground yardage. Eason stayed away from mistakes, while Marino threw two picks having to play from behind without a running game.
New England calmly answered Miami’s touchdown with one more of their own and the 31-14 win was complete. The Patriots had their first Super Bowl berth.
A rematch with the Bears was up in New Orleans. For the third straight game, no one expected New England to win…and this time, they met an opponent that was just too good.
This Chicago team was historically great, particularly on defense. The Patriots rushed for just seven yards. Eason was obviously rattled, threw six incompletions and was yanked, the only starter in Super Bowl history to not complete a pass. The result was a 46-10 demolition. There’s a minor myth out there that this game destroyed Eason’s psyche. In reality, he would come back and lead this franchise to an AFC East title in 1986.
Fortunately, Chicago’s greatness is well enough accepted that the legacy of the 1985 New England Patriots is still seen in a positive light. They went as far as they could and much farther than anyone expected. They didn’t win a championship, but at a time when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were still 15 years away, this ’85 team was a big salve for the sports fans of New England.