The 1994 New England Patriots came into the season with optimism. The 1993 campaign had been the first in the rebuilding campaign under head coach Bill Parcells and rookie quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Even though the final record was 5-11, it was marked by close losses and a strong finish. Those elements seemed to point toward a bigger resurgence. Though it took a while to get going, the ’94 season did indeed see a football resurgence in New England, with their first playoff season since 1986.
The Bledsoe-led offense finished eighth in the NFL in points scored. A lot of the second-year quarterback’s numbers were pedestrian at best. His 58 percent completion rate was in the middle of the league. The 6.6 yards-per-attempt were slightly below that. He was an interception machine, his 27 picks by far the most in the league. But there was more to the story.
Even though Parcells had built his career with an emphasis on a physical running game during his New York Giants tenure, this Patriot team wasn’t cut out to win that way. Parcells knew it and he put a heavy burden on his quarterback. Bledsoe went to the air more than any quarterback in the NFL and his 4,555 passing yards led the league. His 25 touchdown passes were fourth. Those numbers, combined with the team’s success, put him in the Pro Bowl.
Bledsoe had the best tight end in football as his primary target. Ben Coates caught 96 passes for 1,174 yards. Michael Timpson was at one wide receiver spot and he caught 74 passes. Vincent Brisby, the team’s best deep threat caught 58 balls at better than fifteen yards a pop.
The New England offense also relied on its backs to play a big part in the passing game. Leroy Thompson and Kevin Turner combined to catch 117 passes out of the backfield. With the leading rusher, Marion Butts, averaging less than three yards per carry, the backs had to be catching passes to earn their keep.
Defensively, the Patriots were in a personnel transition. Their Hall of Fame outside linebacker, Andre Tippett, retired after 1993. But 23-year-old Chris Slade was up to the task of stepping in. Slade recorded 9 ½ sacks. He got defensive help from Mike Jones who ended six sacks from his end position. Maurice Hurst led the secondary with seven interceptions. There were no Pro Bowlers on the defensive unit, but with Parcells specializing on this side of the ball, the Pats still ranked eighth in the NFL in points allowed.
The season opened with two tough AFC East games. The Miami Dolphins of Dan Marino were a perennial playoff contender and would be so again this year. The Buffalo Bills had merely gone to the Super Bowl each of the last four seasons. And oh, did the points ever fly in these first two weeks.
Bledsoe went into Miami for a late afternoon game in Week 1. He put it up 51 times, throwing for 421 yards and four touchdowns. Coates caught eight balls for 161 yards. The Patriots had leads of 21-10, 28-18 and 35-32. But Marino threw for 473 yards and an old friend—former New England wide receiver Irving Fryar, now in Miami, had the last word. Fryar went for 211 yards receiving and the decisive touchdown in a 39-35 loss.
The following week at home against Buffalo, the Patriots dug an early 14-0 hole and played from behind the entire afternoon. Bledsoe kept firing and threw for 380 yards and three touchdowns. Coates caught nine passes for 124 yards. They pulled even 35-35. But again, the opponent had the last word. This time it was a field goal that sent the Pats to a 38-35 loss.
Nothing like dropping 70 points on your two most important divisional rivals and losing both times. It put New England in a must-win spot when they visited lowly Cincinnati in Week 3. The ball kept going into the air. Timpson had a 10-catch day that produced 125 yards. Coates tacked on another 100-plus receiving. It was hairier than Pats fans might have hoped, but this time it ended with a win, 31-28.
New England went into Detroit for a Week 4 game in the late afternoon TV window. The Lions of this era were a regular playoff team, with the electric Barry Sanders in the backfield. And while Barry did eat up the Patriot defense for 131 yards on the ground, the Pats did everything else well. They played turnover-free. Bledsoe went 21/33 for 251 yards and spread the ball around. The result was a nice 23-17 win that got the team back to .500.
Brett Favre brought the Green Bay Packers into Foxboro for Week 5. Bledsoe went 29/53 for 334 yards and outplayed his future Hall of Fame counterpart. Brisby’s six catches went for 117 yards and Slade got 2 ½ sacks. The problems in the running game nearly did the Pats in—they were doubled up in rush yardage. But a missed extra point by Green Bay was the difference and New England won it 17-16
With three straight wins, the Patriots appeared to be rolling. Instead, they arrived at a point in the year where the wheels nearly came off this promising season.
New England hosted the playoff-bound Los Angeles Raiders and had a 17-7 lead in the second quarter. But Bledsoe was erratic. Even though he threw for 321 yards and Coates again had a huge day, Bledsoe also threw three interceptions. The ten-point lead turned into a 21-17 loss. Even worse was a road trip to a bad New York Jets team. The Pats turned it over four times and lost 24-17. They went stumbling into their bye week at 3-4.
And they came stumbling right back out. A home date with Miami that was supposed to bring some revenge instead brought humiliation. Bledsoe threw three interceptions in a 23-3 loss for the late afternoon TV audience. And a visit to Cleveland, coached by a guy named Belichick, saw four more Bledsoe interceptions turn into a 13-6 loss.
New England was sitting on 3-6. A playoff berth seemed like a longshot. Especially with the Minnesota Vikings, a perennial contender under the leadership of Dennis Green up next on the schedule and the San Diego Chargers—merely bound for the Super Bowl this season following. Even allowing the Vikings and Chargers were coming to Foxboro, this appeared to be the spot where the Patriot season would finally be laid to rest.
When the Pats dug themselves a 20-3 hole against Minnesota, there appeared little reason for hope. Then Bledsoe began putting the ball up—over…and over…and over again. He threw it 70 times. Timpson, Coates and Leroy Thompson all had double-digit catches. Bledsoe brought his team all the way back to tie and forced overtime. His 14-yard TD pass to Kevin Turner won it 26-20. The Patriots had life.
And they found a running game the following week against San Diego. Butts ran for 88 yards. Slade recorded 3 ½ sacks and Hurst picked off a couple passes. New England won 23-17.
They were still a sub-.500 team and a Sunday night visit to Indianapolis, also 5-6, loomed large. Even though Bledsoe couldn’t make big plays in this game, he stayed efficient and Coates showcased his talents for the national audience with 12 catches for 119 yards. Even though the Pats never found the end zone, they won a tough 12-10 game.
There were four games left and New England was 6-6. The structure of the NFL at the time was three divisions per conference (there was no South Division and the Colts were in the AFC East). There were three wild-card berths available. Miami had a two-game lead in the East. Pittsburgh and Cleveland were both having big years in the Central and the runner-up would claim one of the wild-card spots. New England was angling for one of the two remaining berths.
And it was a jam-packed race. Kansas City was 7-5 and had the inside track for one spot. New England, along with Buffalo, Denver and the LA Raiders (San Diego was on their way to winning the West) were all 6-6.
So there was no room for error or a letdown when the Jets came to Foxboro. New England was facing another one of their future head coaches here, this one being Pete Carroll. They fell behind 13-10. But the Pats were finally getting their ground game going, with Thompson going for 80 yards. Defensive back Rickey Reynolds produced a Pick-6. The Patriots won 24-13.
Good news came from elsewhere in the league. Miami lost and was down to 8-5. The division title was coming back into play, even if New England was on the wrong side of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Kansas City also lost. The wild-card picture now had five teams at 7-6, plus the 6-7 Colts, angling for two spots.
And Indy was the next opponent up. The game didn’t start well. Trailing 3-0, the Pats were on the move when Bledsoe threw an interception that came 90 yards back the other way. Suddenly, it was 10-0. But the Patriot defense was going to collect four turnovers of their own, get four sacks and lead the way to a 28-13 win. Buffalo, Kansas City and Denver all lost. New England’s 8-6 record had them, along with the Raiders, in control of the push for the final two playoff spots.
The Patriots’ visit to Buffalo was a highly anticipated early TV window game on December 18. Everyone knew this was the last stand for the Bills. New England fell behind 17-3 and it looked like perhaps the stage was finally getting too big for this up-and-coming team.
Except it wasn’t. Bledsoe threw touchdown passes to Coates and Brisby, tying the game 17-all by halftime. Another defensive touchdown from Reynolds gave New England the lead. They forced five turnovers and committed none. And they just kept piling on. The final was 41-17. The Patriots had ousted the Bills.
New England went into the final week of the season with any number of possibilities on the table. They could win the division. The Patriots and Dolphins were both 9-6 and Miami had a difficult season finale against Detroit. The Pats controlled their wild-card fate. If they beat the Bears—who were playoff-bound in the NFC—then New England was in.
But they could still end up missing out. The game of musical chairs for the two playoff spots was down to the Patriots, Chiefs and Raiders. The latter two were playing head-to-head. If the Pats lost, while the Chiefs beat the Raiders, then New England would be the one left standing without a chair.
Adding to the drama was the way all the relevant games were sequenced. The Pats would play at 1 PM on Christmas Eve. Later that afternoon, the Chiefs would play the Raiders. The Dolphins and Lions were going on Christmas night.
The road trip to Chicago was a tough physical game, the kind New England had not fared well in against the Dolphins and Browns at the midseason low point. But this time, Brisby made just enough plays in the passing game—six catches for 115 yards—to make the difference. The Patriots won 13-3. They were in.
When Miami beat Detroit, it sent New England on the road for the wild-card round. They met their future friend, Bill Belichick, in Cleveland. It was here that the magical winning streak finally came to an end. Bledsoe was erratic, going 21/50 for just 235 yards and he threw three interceptions. Even though this was a 10-10 tie at the half, the Pats ultimately lost 20-13.
There was still no denying the success of the season. The New England Patriots were back. They had a great coach and a rising star at quarterback. Even though 1995 produced a surprise setback, the big breakthrough—the Super Bowl trip of 1996—wasn’t far off on the horizon.