The Super Bowl era had not been kind of the NFL fans of New England. There had been just one winning season from 1966-75, and in six of those seasons the win total ranged from 2-4, including a 3-11 finish in 1975. Chuck Fairbanks had come from Oklahoma in 1973 to take over as head coach, but the results hadn’t been there. The 1976 New England Patriots changed that, earning the franchise’s first playoff berth of the league’s still-young era and may have been one controversial call away from winning the Super Bowl.
New England’s success was built on running the football. The offense ranked second in the NFL in points scored and it was thanks primarily to a powerful ground attack, with paths being cleared by Pro Bowl left tackle Leon Gray and left guard John Hannah, a 1st-team All-NFL selection and one of the great offensive lineman to ever play the game.
A three-headed monster in the backfield took advantage of the holes. Sam Cunningham led the way with 824 yards, with Don Calhoun going for 721 yards and Andy Johnson adding 699 more. They also played key roles in the passing game with Johnson and Cunningham ranking 1-2 on the team in catches, with 29 and 27 respectively.
Russ Francis, the 23-year-old tight end was a Pro Bowler and caught 26 passes for 367 yards. Another 23-year-old, Steve Grogan, was at quarterback. His completion percentage was low at 48 percent—even allowing the lower passing stats of the era, the average quarterback in 1976 was still a nudge over 50 percent. Grogan made up for it with 6.3 yards-per-attempt, substantially better than league norms, though his 20 interceptions in what was then a 14-game schedule were high.
The Patriot defense ranked 11th in points allowed and were led by rookie corner Mike Haynes, who intercepted eight passes, made the Pro Bowl and started a career path that would eventually lead him to Canton.
THE OPENING GAUNTLET
New England had a difficult four-game stretch to open the season. The Baltimore Colts were the defending AFC East champs (the Colts joined the division’s four current teams in the league alignment prior to 2002). After that was the Miami Dolphins, fresh off a 10-4 season and one of the league’s great organizations in the 1970s.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending Super Bowl champs were in Week 3 and that was followed by the Oakland Raiders who had been the primary foil for the Dolphins and Steelers in the big AFC playoff games of the past several years.
It was a daunting gauntlet for a perennial doormat and there was every reason to think it would bury the New England season before it started. Especially when the first game saw a 27-13 home loss to the Colts. Grogan threw four interceptions while counterpart Bert Jones began what would be an MVP season by going 17/23 for 190 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Miami came into Foxboro and after a scoreless first quarter, the Patriots got it going. They picked off Bob Griese three times while Grogan played a clean game. The ground game was dominant, with Cunningham’s 106 yards keying a 278-108 edge in rush yardage. A 30-14 win got New England off the schneid early and most fans were probably ready to consider the first four weeks a success by this point.
The road trip to old Three Rivers Stadium seemed to going according to form when the Patriots trailed 20-9 in the third quarter. Then Grogan hit Francis on a 38-yard touchdown pass and came right back with a 58-yard scoring strike to Darryl Stingley. Then the young quarterback ran for another score. For the day, even though Grogan completed just 13/32 passes, they went for 257 yards, over half of them to Francis. New England surprised the NFL world with a 30-27 win.
If that was a surprise, what happened the next week in Foxboro against Oakland was positively stunning. New England led 7-0 after a quarter, then stretched the lead to 21-10 behind two second-quarter touchdown passes from Grogan. The Pats came out intermission and ripped off 27 unanswered points and won 48-17. Led by Cunningham’s 101 yards, they had run roughshod over John Madden’s proud Raider team.
Recent history or no, going 3-1 against a schedule like this announced to the league that this Patriot team was coming.
UPS AND DOWNS
The following Sunday announced to the world that they were also still young and could fall asleep at the wheel. Against a mediocre Detroit team, the Patriots dug a 20-0 hole on the road, didn’t run the ball and Grogan threw five interceptions in a 30-10 loss. But you could dismiss that as a “sandwich” game, stuck right in between the brutal opening stretch and the impending Monday Night game against Joe Namath and the New York Jets.
Monday Night Football was in its fifth year and this was New England’s first appearance on what would become the league’s biggest regular season stage. The Patriots showcased their ground-and-pound game to the country, rushing for 330 yards, 103 of them from Grogan himself. It was a 41-7 rout and New England was back on track.
The Patriots played another superstar on a bad AFC East rival when they visited O.J. Simpson’s Bills. The Juice ran for 110 yards, but Cunningham ran for 118. New England built a 26-9 lead and held on 26-22 amidst a sloppy game that saw the teams combine for nine turnovers.
Miami wasn’t having a vintage season, but they were still in the playoff hunt and they still were a tough out at home, especially for New England who spent years being tormented by Miami’s Orange Bowl until they won the AFC Championship Game there in 1985. On this day, the Pats couldn’t get their customary ground advantage, losing rush yardage 157-130. They didn’t get the turnovers like they had in these teams’ first game. And they lost 10-3.
New England was 5-3 and very much in the playoff hunt, but the bar was high. In a three-division AFC, there was only one wild-card spot available, so good teams got left home. At this point, in spite of all they had accomplished, there was no reason to think the Patriots wouldn’t be one of them in 1976.
The Bills came to Foxboro next and it was a close 6-0 game in the second quarter when Haynes broke an 89-yard punt return for a score. Even though the Pats turned it over five times, Buffalo was worse, with eight turnovers. New England won 20-10.
THE FINAL SURGE
It was time to go to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore where the Colts were leading the pack in the AFC East. The Red Sox had made many unhappy journeys to this venue to face the Orioles, most notably over Labor Day weekend in 1974. This game would bring a smile to the folks of New England.
Grogan outplayed the soon-to-be-MVP Jones, going 12/17 for 137 yards and no interceptions. Jones wasn’t bad the standards of the era, but at 10/25 for 139 yards and two picks, he wasn’t in MVP form. It shifted the focus to the ground game and New England was going to win that battle. Calhoun rushed for 141 yards and the Patriots won 21-14.
Baltimore still led the AFC East with an 8-2 record, but New England was now on their heels at 7-3. The Patriots led the race for the wild-card where Pittsburgh, Denver and Cleveland were all giving chase at 6-4, with Miami on the fringe at 5-5.Some big football was ahead in the final month of the season.
The Patriots went to old Shea Stadium on November 21 and made Namath’s life miserable. They intercepted him five times, with three interceptions coming from Haynes. New England forced ten turnovers in all and won 38-24. Baltimore kept the division lead with a win, but in beating Miami, all but eliminated the Dolphins. The Steelers, Broncos and Browns all kept pace.
That set up an enormous game in Foxboro with Denver. It didn’t live up to expectations, but that was just fine by everyone in New England. The Patriots played their most dominant game of the season, even more so than against Oakland, because of the way they obliterated Denver at the at the point of attack and took the game over immediately.
By halftime the score was 31-0. The final rushing numbers for the day showed the Patriots with a 332-84 edge, 177 yards for Calhoun alone. The final was 38-14 and with just two weeks to go, the Broncos were now out. The Steelers and Browns kept the pressure on though, and the Colts also won.
New England did have good tiebreaker position in the wild-card race. They held the edge on the Browns and Steelers, and also on the AFC Central-leading Bengals, who were slumping and in danger of being caught by Pittsburgh. With a one-game cushion, it meant that the Patriots could clinch at least the wild-card at home against New Orleans.
The Saints were a bad team, but they hung in, trailing just 13-6 in the fourth quarter. What saved New England was not turning the ball over and in the final period, Grogan ran for one touchdown, threw for another and the Pats clinched with a 27-6 win.
Now the focus turned to the AFC East. Baltimore held the tiebreaker here, but missed a chance to clinch when they lost in St. Louis. The division race would go to the final week, but with the Colts hosting the Bills, there wasn’t reason to be optimistic.
The Patriots went to Tampa Bay, who were in their first season of existence and winless. New England flirted with embarrassing themselves and were tied 14-14 in the third quarter. Then an interception of Bucs quarterback Steve Spurrier was taken to the house and New England pulled away 31-14. The Baltimore-Buffalo game had kicked off an hour after this one, but with the Colts on their way to a 58-20 win there would be no reason for players to gather around a TV set.
New England was still on a good hot streak and were the only team all year to beat Oakland. That’s where the Patriots headed for the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Pats had a 7-3 lead in the second quarter and were driving for more when Grogan threw an interception. Raider quarterback Ken Stabler rallied his team to a touchdown with 45 seconds left in the half and put the Patriots down 10-7.
New England controlled the third quarter, with Grogan hitting Francis from 26 yards and then running back Jess Phillips going in for a score. It was 21-10 after three quarters and even though Stabler rallied Oakland with a fourth-quarter touchdown, New England was still in position to close it out.
With less than five minutes to play, the Patriots had 3rd-and-1 on the Raider 28-yard line. A Grogan keeper picked up the first down, but offsides called it back. The next third-down conversion failed, a field goal was missed and Stabler got another chance.
New England had Oakland facing a 3rd-and-18 on the Patriot 36-yard line. Stabler, trying to escape the pass rush of nose tackle Sugar Bear Hamilton threw the ball incomplete. But in a call hotly disputed by New England, Hamilton was called for roughing the passer. It gave the Raiders new life and with 14 seconds left, Stabler scored the winning touchdown.
The 24-21 loss was a heartbreaking way to end the season. It gets worse when you consider that Oakland blasted an injury-riddled Pittsburgh team in the AFC Championship Game and the steamrolled Minnesota in the Super Bowl. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that the real Super Bowl was played on December 18 in Oakland Alameda-County Coliseum and that only a terrible call kept the 1976 New England Patriots from joining the Boston Celtics as local teams that would win a championship in ’76.
Amidst the heartbreak, there was optimism about the future. The core of this team, from Grogan to all the pieces in the running game, both in the backfield and up front, were young. Haynes was a rising star on defense. New Englanders felt the same way about this team that they did about the Red Sox in the aftermath of the 1975 World Series—a team that would get many more chances at glory.
And like the late 1970s Red Sox, this Patriot team did not fulfill those hopes. The Pats only made one more playoff appearance in the decade, in 1978. They never got to the Super Bowl until 1985 and they never won it until the Belichick/Brady era a quarter-century later. More than just one season was lost by a bad call in Oakland—the chance of an entire period of history was lost as well.