The 1986 New England Patriots didn’t make a Super Bowl run like they had in 1985. But in its own way, the ’86 Patriots were just as impressive. While the 1985 AFC Championship had a magical quality to it, with three straight road playoff wins, the 1986 team showed its mettle by winning the franchise’s first division title since 1978.
The running game had been the key to the ’85 playoff run, but the Patriot ground attack staggered badly in 1986. The legendary John Hannah, one of the great offensive lineman in history, had retired at the top of his game, going out on both a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl year. Losing Hannah was a blow to anyone, but especially to the Patriots, who lacked Pro Bowl talent anywhere else up front.
Even though Mosi Tatupu made the Pro Bowl for his blocking work at fullback, neither of the prime ball-carriers—Tony Collins and Craig James—cleared 450 rush yards for the entire season.
New England still finished with the second-most prolific offense in the NFL so that tells you the passing game must have been firing on all cylinders. Tony Eason had an excellent season at quarterback, bouncing back admirably from a miserable night in the Super Bowl.
Eason was a high-percentage passer and his 62% completion rate was near the top of the league. On a related note, his interception percentage of 2.2% was also close to the best in the NFL. Even better is that this efficiency did not compromise the team’s ability to get some big plays—Eason’s 7.4 yards-per-attempt was a bit better than the league average and when you combine that with high-percentage and no-mistakes passing, you have something pretty good.
Stanley Morgan was easily the best of the receivers, catching 84 passes and stretching the field with a 17.8 yards-per-catch average. Morgan made the Pro Bowl and if you paid him too much attention defensively, Irving Fryar could also beat you deep. Fryar caught 43 passes and also averaged better than 17 yards a pop.
The offense designed by head coach Raymond Berry—once the favored target of the great Johnny Unitas—was diverse, and Collins caught 77 passes out of the backfield. Greg Baty rounded out the group of Eason’s prime pass-catchers at tight end.
New England’s defense was a 3-4 scheme built around aggressive play from the outside linebackers. Andre Tippett played the position as well as anyone not named Lawrence Taylor in his heyday and he recorded 9 ½ sacks while making the Pro Bowl in 1986. Don Blackmon added 7 ½ more sacks on the other side. More pressure came up front from rookie defensive end Brent Williams. The seventh-round draft pick recorded seven sacks, while Gavin Veris got 11 more.
With opposing quarterbacks facing steady pressure from both sides of the pocket and from two different levels of the defense, it was a good scheme to be a corner in. Raymond Clayborn was a Pro Bowler and Ronnie Lippett picked off eight passes. All in all, the Patriots defense ranked 10th in the NFL in points allowed.
New England opened the season with a home date against the awful Indianapolis Colts and it went as easily as expected. Eason went 18/29 for 252 yards, with Morgan catching seven balls for 116 of those yards. Blackmon got three sacks right out of the gate, the defense forced three turnovers and the Patriots won 33-3.
The New York Jets had joined the Patriots and Dolphins as playoff teams out of the AFC East in 1985 and the Jets would be a contender for all of this season. That made a Thursday Night trip to the Meadowlands an anticipated game, and not just because Thursday Night games were an exception to the rule back then.
Eason was brilliant again, throwing for 414 yards. The defense dominated in every way, with four sacks and taking away the ground game. The result was a 20-6 win.
After two straight wins over divisional foes (the Colts were in the AFC East with the division’s four current teams prior to 2002), the Pats dropped close games to good teams in Seattle and Denver.
The Seahawk loss was a tough one to swallow. On a rainy day in Foxboro, Eason threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to Morgan, from 44 and 30 yards. With a 31-21 lead, a 3-0 start was in the Patriots’ grasp. Then they allowed a defensive touchdown and allowed a 67-yard touchdown pass to Dave Krieg, losing the game 38-31.
Denver would ultimately make the Super Bowl, so the 27-20 loss on the road was no big deal. The second-half meltdown was the disappointment—the Patriots led 13-3 at the half, but the offensive line was terrible—no running game and Eason was sacked five times. The Broncos took over after halftime.
Lippett came up with a huge game the next week at home against Miami. He picked off Dan Marino twice, part of a three-interception day against the future Hall of Fame quarterback who made 1st-team All-NFL in 1986. The big downside was Eason being knocked out, but Steve Grogan was as good a fallback option as there was in the league. Morgan caught six passes for 125 yards and the Patriots won easily, 34-7.
The Jets made their return visit to Foxboro and Grogan was still behind center. The story at the outset was the complete inability of the Patriots to stop the run. New York ran up a 177-17 edge in rush yardage and built a 24-zip lead. Grogan brought the Pats roaring back, hitting Morgan on a 44-yard touchdown pass and Fryar on a 69-yard strike. New England pulled to within 24-17, but the hill was too high to climb and the game ended 31-24.
Grogan went one more game in Pittsburgh against a shaky Steelers team and he made sure Eason would feel some pressure upon his return. Without the benefit of a running attack, Grogan carved up the Steelers to the tune of 18/26 for 243 yards and three touchdowns. The defense recorded five sacks, two by Tippett in a 34-0 rout.
Eason’s return at lowly Buffalo was overshadowed by two things. The first was that few Patriot fans may have noticed—the night before the Red Sox had blown Game 6 of the World Series to the Mets, the game ending with the infamous error by Bill Buckner.
The other thing overshadowing Eason was more appealing to New England fans and it’s the play of the defense. Lippett again had two interceptions against a future Hall of Famer, this time Jim Kelly—although unlike Marino, Kelly and his team were very much in a developmental phase. Tippett rang up 3 ½ more sacks, as the Pats made Kelly’s day positively miserable in a 23-3 win.
The Patriots hosted mediocre Atlanta and dinked around until the third quarter. They gave up over 200 yards on the ground for the game and were clinging to a 12-10 lead. Fryar lit a spark with a 59-yard punt return and Veris rose up defensively with 2 ½ sacks, as New England finally took control in a 25-17 win.
Another ho-hum start came at Indianapolis and the Patriots trailed this one 14-6 at the half. To lose to a division rival on its way to a 3-13 season would be disastrous in a tough race for the playoffs. Lippett helped turn the game around with a couple interceptions, Eason threw a pair of short touchdown passes and New England got it going in the second half to win 30-21.
The winning streak was now quietly at four games as the Patriots visited the Los Angeles Rams, who were leading the NFC West at the time of the game and ended up as a wild-card. When New England dug themselves a 28-16 hole in the third quarter it looked like that winning streak was more a product of weak competition than Patriot excellence.
Berry put the game in Eason’s hands, calling for 52 pass plays and the quarterback delivered. Eason completed 36 of those passes and produced 375 pass yards. He spread the football around, hitting Morgan seven times and Collins on ten occasions out of the backfield. Two touchdown passes to Fryar pulled out a 30-28 win.
New England was 8-3, but the Jets were riding high. They were 10-1, not having lost since that Thursday Night defeat to the Patriots all the way back in Week 2. But little did anyone know that the Jets would lose every game for the rest of the regular season (well, one person knew it—NBC analyst Paul Maguire predicted it on-air at the time, but it would take a few weeks before anyone else saw that as more than bluster).
When the Patriots jumped out to a 15-0 lead on the Bills, it looked like an easy day. But they were unable to get the ball downfield—James and Collins combined for 14 catches—and couldn’t run the ball. Buffalo went ahead 19-5, before Eason led a winning drive capped off with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Baty. It hadn’t been easy, but it was a win and it pulled New England to within a game of first place with four weeks to go.
The Patriots’ wild-card position at this time was strong—with two berths available, they led the pack at 9-3, with two teams at 8-4, the Los Angeles Raiders and whomever of the Cleveland Browns & Cincinnati Bengals didn’t win the division.
New England’s rushing woes hit their low point at mediocre New Orleans, when they got only two yards on the ground. Fortunately they forced five turnovers, scored off a blocked punt and Williams scooped up a fumble that he took to the house. It was enough to eke out a 21-20 win. They pulled even with the Jets, while the Raiders and Bengals also lost.
Cincinnati came to Foxboro and there was a chance to all but seal up a playoff spot, but the Patriots’ defense turned in perhaps their worst showing of the season. It was certainly the worst effort by the defensive front, which was overwhelmed for 300 yards rushing in a 31-7 loss. San Francisco came into town next and the result was similar—crushed on the ground, 198-60 in yardage, three turnovers and a 29-24 loss.
New England would close the season on Monday Night in Miami. The Dolphins had slipped from their playoff status of previous years and at 8-7 were out of the playoff picture. And it was likely to be a must-win spot.
The Patriots and Jets were each 10-5. New England controlled its destiny for the division title based on record against AFC East teams. But a Jets’ loss—which happened—didn’t necessarily clinch, because a Patriot loss would drop them into a tie on division record and move the tiebreaker to conference record, where the Jets had the edge. So from the perspective of the AFC East, New England-Miami was the only game that mattered.
In the meantime, the two-game losing streak had New England clinging to a one-game lead on Cincinnati, Kansas City and Seattle. The Patriots position on tiebreakers here was horrible, thanks in no small part to the losses to the Bengals and Seahawks (who were an AFC team prior to 2002).
Sunday did not go well if you were a Pats fan. The Bengals, Chiefs and Seahawks all won. New England’s position was simple—win, and take the AFC East title. Lose, and go home. And the oddsmakers said the Pats were (+3.5) underdogs.
To give this prime-time matchup further context, let’s consider that the Orange Bowl in Miami was generally considered the Patriot House of Horrors. Winning the AFC title game there in 1985 cured a lot of ills, but if the team concluded a late-season collapse it would bring those bad memories back. And this all took place in the backdrop of the entire New England region still reeling from the Red Sox coming within a strike of winning the World Series before losing.
Eason was ready to meet the moment though. He found Morgan on an early 22-yard touchdown pass and the Patriots took a 13-3 lead.
Then Eason was knocked out, as if to demonstrate that everything possible really was going to wrong. Marino, after five quarters of poor play against New England finally awoke and rifled a couple TD passes of his own. The Dolphins were now ahead 20-13.
Grogan was a clutch performer though and he responded well. He ran in for a seven-yard touchdown to tie the game. And when Marino put Miami back on top 27-20, Grogan responded again. He threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to Collins, who caught seven passes for 73 yards. Grogan then broke the tie by hitting Morgan on a 30-yard touchdown play.
Morgan caught eight passes for 141 yards. Grogan finished 15/24 for 226 yards, giving the Patriots the kind of relief effort that Red Sox fans only wished had come from Calvin Schiraldi. The 34-27 win sent New England to the playoffs.
The NFL used a three-division format with two wild-cards at the time, so being the 3-seed didn’t get you a home game the way it does today. But it did get you a bye and the Patriots took a week off, knowing that a return visit to Denver was up next.
New England acquitted themselves reasonably well on a late Sunday afternoon in Mile High Stadium. The defense forced Elway into an erratic 13/32 performance. Eason was efficient, 13/24 for 194 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. But the lack of a running game finally did the Pats in. As did the presence of Elway on the other side who still threw for 257 yards, including a 48-yard touchdown strike on the final play of the third quarter that gave the Broncos the lead. The final was 22-17.
It might not have been a Super Bowl run for the 1986 New England Patriots, but it was still a very nice season. The disappointment comes less from the playoff loss, but from the fact that this was the end of the brief high point under Raymond Berry. The Pats played winning football for two more years, but did not make it back to the postseason. They collapsed in 1989 and didn’t come back to life until five years later, when Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe were in town.