The 1982 New England Patriots began the season with a new head coach in Ron Meyer, and they produced a new identity—a defense-oriented team that plowed their way, quite literally, to a playoff berth in an NFL season that was marred by a strike.
New England, after five straight winning seasons from 1976-80, had collapsed and finished 2-14 in 1981. Head coach Ron Erhardt was let go and the organization reached into the college ranks to find Meyer, who had built the SMU program into the best in the old Southwest Conference, league that included Texas.
Meyer emphasized the running game and second-year back Tony Collins enjoyed a solid, if up-and-down year. Collins ran behind left guard John Hannah, still a Pro Bowler at age 31, and still the man widely regarded as the best offensive lineman in the game.
Those were the only real standouts on the offensive side of the ball though. Steve Grogan’s season was marred by injuries. Officially he only missed three games, although that’s only due to the strike. Grogan didn’t play until late November.
New England’s offense still had a good deep threat in wide receiver Stanley Morgan, and veteran fullback Mark van Eghen, a key part of the great Oakland Raiders’ teams of the 1970s, chipped in to help Collins. But on balance, an offense that had been one of the league’s best continued a downward decline that began in ’81 and finished 22nd in the NFL in points scored in 1982.
The defense wasn’t loaded with talent—in fact, they only had Pro Bowler, an outstanding corner in future Hall of Famer Mike Haynes. But the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. A new defensive coordinator named Jim Mora joined the staff.
Mora would ultimately become legendary for repeatedly saying “Playoffs?!” in disbelief to a reporter when he was coach of the Indianapolis Colts nearly two decades later. But more important was that he was a solid football coach, and he turned this modestly talented Patriot defense into the seventh the NFL, marking dramatic improvement from recent years.
New England opened the season at the Baltimore Colts, who were then an AFC East rival, along with the division’s four current teams. The Colts were an awful team this year and finished 0-8-1, but they led this game 13-10 in the second half. The ultimate difference was that Collins was running well, gaining 137 yards. New England forced four turnovers and a 30-yard touchdown pass by backup quarterback Matt Cavanaugh gave them the lead and the final was 24-13.
A home game with the New York Jets, coming off a playoff season in 1981 and bound for the AFC Championship Game this year, didn’t go quite as well. The Patriots got just five first downs and rushed for only 61 yards. By comparison, the Jets got thirty first downs and ran for 254 yards. The final was 31-7.
The labor dispute boiled over after two weeks and there were no more games until just prior to Thanksgiving. When the season resumed on November 21, there were just seven weeks left. The league decided to expand the playoffs to eight teams per conference and they also eliminated divisional distinctions. It would just be the top eight in the AFC & NFC that would qualify.
New England’s first game back was at Cleveland, two years removed from an 11-5 season and who would scrape into the playoffs this year. This game would prove to be significant when we got to the end of the season, although you would be hard-pressed to guess that by the ugliness in which it was played. It was a scoreless tie into the fourth quarter. The Patriots outrushed the Browns 169-97, but Cavanaugh completed only three passes and New England lost 10-7.
The Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans) came to Foxboro as a shadow of the team that had blown out the Patriots in the 1978 playoffs. The Oilers still had the great running back Earl Campbell, but little else. They only won one game in this strike year and it wasn’t coming on the day Grogan returned. The Patriot quarterback hit Morgan with a 62-yard touchdown pass, Collins ran for 161 yards and New England jumped out to a 29-7 lead before winning 29-21.
A poor performance at subpar Chicago followed, with the Pats only gaining 46 yards on the ground, falling behind 23-0 and losing 26-13. The Miami Dolphins came to Foxboro next for the game and moment by which this season is remembered in New England.
Snow blanketed the region and the field and neither team could move the ball. The Patriots and Dolphins combined for 72 passing yards. In a scoreless tie, the Pats got themselves into field goal range. At which point a snowplow conveniently appeared during a timeout and cleared an area for kicker John Smith. He booted a field goal for the game’s only points.
“The Snowplow Game” took its place in Patriot lore and became revived around the league in future years when the controversies over Bill Belichick spying and Tom Brady allegedly deflating footballs hit the national media. The win moved New England to 3-3 and kept them in the playoff hunt.
Mora’s defense delivered another shutout in Seattle and with the Seahawks playing indoors at the Kingdome, this one wasn’t weather-aided. The Patriots forced six turnovers and held Seattle to 53 rush yards in a 16-0 win. But on the verge of the playoffs, New England played an awful game in Pittsburgh, giving up over 200 yards on the ground and losing 37-14.
We were down to the last game of the season and the Patriots were one of three teams at 4-4 that were vying for two playoff spots. One of them was the Browns, whom New England had lost to. The other was Buffalo—who was coming to Foxboro for the finale. It was a straight—up, win and go on, lose and go home, battle.
The Bills had been a good team in recent years, winning the AFC East in 1980 and reaching the playoffs in 1981. They had a pretty good quarterback in Joe Ferguson, a talented running back in Joe Cribbs and were installed as a (-3.5) road favorite for this game.
Smith kicked a field goal to put the Patriots on the board first, but the Bills responded with a consecutive touchdowns. A missed extra point kept the score at 13-3. Grogan threw one touchdown pass in the second quarter and another in the third. The Patriots missed an extra point of their own to keep their lead at three points, 16-13. Buffalo tied it with a field goal.
New England then won two key red zone battles to swing the game. Collins scored from a yard out. When the Bills drove inside the 10-yard line themselves, the Patriots held. They still led 23-19 and Grogan’s third touchdown pass of the game clinched the 30-19 win. He finished the day 20/34 for 260 yards in his best game of a troubled season.
The 5-4 record wasn’t the most impressive of playoff seasons, but after missing at 9-5 in 1977 and 10-6 in 1980, maybe New England was owed some good fortune.
It’s also worth pointing out that the Snowplow Game ended up not mattering. Had the Patriots lost that game to finish 4-5, they would still have won tiebreakers over the two other 4-5 teams, the Bills and Seahawks, thanks to a head-to-head win.
The snowplow wouldn’t be needed for the playoff rematch with the Dolphins. Miami was 7-2 and hosted the game in South Beach. On a late Saturday afternoon in January, New England’s season came to an end.
The Patriots started the playoff game reasonably well, going through a scoreless first quarter and then getting on the board with a Smith field goal. But they were outrushed 214-77, were down 14-3 by half and 28-6 in the third quarter before scoring a meaningless touchdown at the end.
It would be the one high point of the short Ron Meyer era in New England. The head coach would be gone by midway through the 1984 season. Haynes would be traded away a year later. Grogan would continue to struggle with injuries. But Collins was a building block and would be a key part of the team that finally gave New England its first Super Bowl trip in 1985.