When the tandem of head coach Bill Parcells and young quarterback Drew Bledsoe led the Patriots to their first playoff berth in nine years in 1994, it looked like the franchise had turned a corner. It had, but the 1995 New England Patriots did represent a disappointing—albeit temporary–step backwards.
What makes the regression of the ’95 Patriots even more surprising is that they fixed their biggest weakness from the prior year. The ’94 team had been held back by an inability to run the football consistently. Parcells drafted running back Curtis Martin the first round. Behind an offensive line led by Pro Bowl left tackle Bruce Armstrong, Martin ran for nearly 1,500 yards, won Offensive Rookie of the Year and embarked on a Hall of Fame career.
But Bledsoe struggled. His 51 percent completion rate and 5.5 yards-per-attempt were both near the bottom of the league. The 13/16 TD-INT ratio, while not nearly as unthinkable as it would be in today’s game, was still a problem.
That’s in spite of having reliable tight end Ben Coates as his primary target. Coates was 1st-team All-NFL for the second straight year, catching 84 passes for over 900 yards. Vincent Brisby continued to be a deep threat on the outside, with 66 catches for 974 yards. Will Moore provided a possession receiver underneath with 43 more catches. And Parcells brought in an old hand from his New York Giants days—running back Dave Meggett, who caught 52 balls out of the backfield.
Nonetheless, when the quarterback’s numbers look like Bledsoe’s did in 1995, the results aren’t going to be pretty. And the New England offense ranked 23rd in the NFL in points scored.
Equally disappointing was the decline of the defense. This side of the ball was a Parcells specialty and had been a Top 10 unit in the playoff run of 1994. But with young outside linebacker Chris Slade suffering a sharp decline in production, the Patriots slipped. Even allowing the bright spot of breaking in another good young outside linebacker, Willie McGinest with his 11 sacks, the Pats defense still ranked 25th in points allowed.
The previous season had ended with a playoff loss in Cleveland. The Browns, ironically coached by Bill Belichick, came to Foxboro to begin the 1995 campaign. Bledsoe played well, going 30/47 for 302 yards. Coates caught nine balls for 116 yards. Martin showed this offense’s new dimension, by gaining 102 yards on 19 carries. One of those was the winning touchdown in a 17-14 win.
But the next two weeks were ugly. A home date with Miami, a perennial playoff contender, ended in a 20-3 loss. A road trip to San Francisco, the defending Super Bowl champ resulted in a 28-3 loss. New England looked badly outmatched by good teams, hadn’t scored a touchdown…and on top of it all, Bledsoe separated his shoulder in the 49er loss. An early bye week was a gift.
Even the week off wasn’t enough for Bledsoe to get healthy, so backup Scott Zolak got the start in Atlanta. The Falcons would sneak into the playoffs this season. Even though the game was tied 17-17 after three quarters, the Patriots fell apart down the stretch and lost 30-17.
Bledsoe returned for a Sunday Night home date with Denver, but the offense picked up where they had left off in his previous games—by failing to score a touchdown. With Bledsoe an erratic 24/56 for 248 yards, the Patriots fell behind quickly, had to abandon the running game and suffered a humiliating 37-3 loss to a mediocre opponent.
New England played better in Kansas City the following week, but against a Chiefs team headed for the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, it wasn’t enough. The Patriots again fell behind, this time 24-10 at the half, and had to abandon Martin. Bledsoe went 25/47 for 237 yards and tried to rally the troops, but the final result was still a 31-26 loss.
The promise of this season was rapidly slipping away, with a 1-5 record. Buffalo was coming in on Monday Night with a record of 5-1. A game that had originally looked like a real AFC East showdown when the schedule came out, now had a very different feel.
Playing with desperation, the Patriots came out physical. Martin got the ball 36 times and ran for 127 yards. New England controlled the ball for nearly forty minutes. They won 27-14.
But any hope that win might have engendered was given back the following week against the expansion Carolina Panthers. The Pats were outrushed 143-98 and trailed 17-3 in the fourth quarter. Bledsoe rallied the offense for a pair of touchdowns and forced overtime, but Carolina still pulled out the 20-17 win.
New England was 2-6. They were entering a stretch of four straight AFC East games as the calendar flipped to November. Three of those games would be on the road.
The first one was in the Meadowlands against the lowly Jets. Martin ran for 166 yards and the Patriots muscled out a 20-7 win. They went to Miami and Martin again muscled up, this time for 142 yards. Brisby caught six balls for 118 yards. A game that was tied 10-10 at the half, saw New England pull away to a 34-17 win.
At 4-6, the Patriots hosted the Indianapolis Colts, who were a division rival prior to the realignment of 2002. The offensive line had a poor day. Bledsoe was sacked five times. There were only 51 rushing yards. While Bledsoe avoided mistakes, there was no time to generate any big plays in the passing offense. All of which are indicators of being whipped up front. And New England was whipped on the scoreboard, 24-10.
The Patriots went to Buffalo, who was still leading the division at 8-3, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. When New England trailed 25-13 after three quarters, thanks to three Bledsoe interceptions, it was no longer a surprise in this disappointing year. But the Pats didn’t roll over. Martin would finish the day with 148 yards on the ground. Bledsoe bounced back with a pair of fourth-quarter TD passes to Coates. Slade came up with a Pick-6. And New England ended up winning 35-25.
This strange ability to beat Buffalo while struggling against everyone else actually had the Pats holding on for life in what was a very mediocre race for what were three wild-card spots. The Raiders were 8-4, the Colts were 7-5 and then the Dolphins and Broncos were tied for the final spot at 6-6. The Patriots, along with the Chargers and Seahawks at 5-7, still had a shot if everything broke right.
But everything did not break right. Playing at home against mediocre New Orleans as a (-4.5) favorite, New England was tied 17-17 in the fourth quarter. The defense allowed both a passing and running touchdown in excess of sixty yards. The 31-17 loss effectively ended any longshot playoff hopes.
There was still the matter of finishing the year with some pride. Martin ran for 148 yards and overcame a putrid day by Bledsoe in a 31-28 home win over the Jets. The Pats went to Pittsburgh, who was on their way to the 2-seed in the playoffs and ultimately the Super Bowl, for an early Saturday afternoon game. Bledsoe played much better in this one, going 39/60 for 336 yards. Martin ran for 120 yards and the Patriots were tied 27-all in the fourth quarter. The defense again gave up touchdown plays of over sixty yards in what ended as a 41-27 loss.
The season finale was a Saturday night in Indianapolis. The Colts needed to win to make the playoffs. Bledsoe threw a second-quarter touchdown pass and had New England up 7-0. But he also threw three interceptions. Kicker Matt Bahr missed three field goals. Even though Martin had another 100-plus yard game, the Pats never scored again. They lost 10-7.
There was no getting around the disaster this 6-10 campaign was. In the moment, a Patriot fan base that had no experience with sustained success, couldn’t be blamed for thinking 1994 had been a fluke. But in fact, it was this 1995 dark spot that would be just a blip on the radar. The Patriots bounced back to make the playoffs the next three years, win the AFC East twice and reach the Super Bowl in 1996.