A playoff season in 1994 made it appear that the rebuilding program under head coach Bill Parcells and quarterback Drew Bledsoe had turned a corner. A disappointing regression in 1995 called that into question. Parcells, Bledsoe and the 1996 New England Patriots responded decisively–with a run to the Super Bowl, something the pre-Tom Brady franchise had achieved only once before.
Patriot success was built around the durable right arm of Bledsoe, who threw more passes than any other quarterback in football. The fourth-year signal-caller came into his own with his best season yet.
Bledsoe’s 60 percent completion rate ranked eighth in the league and his 27 touchdown passes were third. While the 6.6 yards-per-attempt was in the lower half of starting quarterbacks, Bledsoe made huge progress in cutting down his mistakes. He was intercepted on 2.4 percent of his passes, the fifth-best in the NFL. He earned a ticket to the Pro Bowl
It didn’t hurt that Bledsoe had a future Hall of Fame running back to give the football too. Second-year back Curtis Martin rolled up 1,152 yards and made the Pro Bowl. Martin could also catch passes and his 46 receptions were fourth on the team.
One thing Bledsoe had been missing in his first three seasons was a real threat at wide receiver. Parcells drafted Terry Glenn out of Ohio State and Glenn made an immediate impact—90 catches for 1,132 yards. Glenn’s emergence allowed Shawn Jefferson to settle into the #2 spot where he was a more natural fit. Jefferson caught 50 balls and stretched the field at better than 15 yards a pop.
And when the receivers weren’t open, one of the great reliable tight ends in the league could be counted on. Ben Coates caught 62 balls and picked up a Pro Bowl invite. Veteran running back Dave Meggett caught 33 more passes and the added dimension he brought as an All-Pro kick returner would prove decisive at a critical point in this season.
The Patriot offensive lines of this era were never overpowering, but Parcells could always rely on left tackle Bruce Armstrong to anchor the blind side. Armstrong was another Pro Bowler on an offense that ranked second in the NFL in points scored.
After a disappointing year defensively in 1995, Parcells made a big shift. Long identified with the 3-4 scheme, Parcells shifted to four down lineman in a 4-3. That moved outside linebacker Willie McGinest to the end spot. McGinest responded with 9 ½ sacks and a Pro Bowl season.
There were good young players in the secondary—Ty Law, the future Hall of Fame corner, was in his second year and strong safety Lawyer Milloy was a rookie. The defense wasn’t great, but at 14th in the league in points allowed, it got back to respectability.
New England faced a difficult schedule early on, with road trips to Miami and Buffalo. The Dolphins were a perennial playoff contender in the 1990s with Dan Marino at quarterback and they were in their first year under new head coach Jimmy Johnson. The Bills had merely won five of the previous seven AFC East titles and gone to the Super Bowl four times in that stretch.
The season got off to a stumbling start in the late afternoon TV window at Miami’s Orange Bowl. The Pats fumbled inside their own red zone and it was returned for a TD. They turned it over three more times after that, were outrushed 146-29 and lost 24-10.
Another rookie that would ultimately make a big impact on this franchise was kicker Adam Vinateri. But the only impact Vinateri made in Buffalo was to take his lumps—he missed three field goals in a 17-10 loss. The Patriots were 0-2. They were picking up where they left off in ’95. In fact, if you really wanted to do some selective editing of a record you could say that entire Parcells/Bledsoe era that began in 1993 was reducible to a seven-game win streak that ended the regular season in 1994.
But better days were ahead. New England hosted the mediocre Arizona Cardinals and found their running game. A 163-46 edge in rush yardage joined with a sharp performance from Bledsoe—21/35 for 221 yards, three touchdowns and no mistakes. A 31-0 win got the Pats off the schneid.
Jacksonville was an expansion team in just their second year of existence. With Bledsoe going 27/44 for 255 yards, the Patriots built a 22-0 lead. Then the pass defense collapsed and the Jaguars tied the game. With disaster looming, Bledsoe drove the Pats into position for a Vinateri field goal to get the 28-25 win.
New England went into their bye week at 2-2. It hadn’t been pretty to this point, but they had survived.
The first game out of the bye was a road trip to Baltimore, where the Ravens were playing their first season in a new city after abandoning Cleveland. Bledsoe carved up what was a bad Baltimore team to the tune of 25/39 for 310 yards and four touchdowns. The Patriots led 38-14 in the third quarter and some late Ravens points made the final deceptively close at 46-38.
The other half of the Maryland beltway was the Washington Redskins, who were off to a hot start. The ‘Skins came north to Foxboro. With Martin rushing for 164 yards, the Patriots took a 16-10 lead at the half. But with Bledsoe erratic and the pass defense again showing some leaks, New England gave up a couple third-quarter TD passes and lost 27-22.
The Pats were 3-3 and heading into a crucial stretch of four straight divisional games. The first was at Indianapolis, an AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002. New England got off to a slow start, but some clutch red-zone defense had them down just 6-0. Bledsoe went on to play a mistake-free football game while the Patriot defense collected four fumbles. They won 27-9.
That set up Buffalo’s visit for Sunday Night Football. Bledsoe had a big night, going 32/45 for 373 yards and spreading the ball around. On the flip side, Martin couldn’t get going and New England was outrushed 141-59. A back-and-forth battle ensued for the national audience. The Pats were up 13-0 in the second quarter, but down 18-15 in the fourth quarter. The biggest play down the stretch came when McGinest intercepted a pass and took it 46 yards to the house. New England won 28-25.
Miami was up next, again set in the late afternoon TV window. For three quarters, this was a tough battle and the Patriots trailed 17-14. Bledsoe threw a 23-yard TD pass to Coates for the lead. The pair connected again, this time from 84 yards. Bledsoe finished 30/41 for 319 yards. Glenn caught ten balls for 112 yards. New England blew it open for a 42-23 win.
The Patriots had come all the way back from the dregs of the early season. They had taken their revenge on both the Bills and Dolphins and were now sitting on a 6-3 record. It’s a record that went to 7-3 on a visit to an awful New York Jets team. Even though the Pats, clearly on a hangover, generously spotted their hosts a 21-0 lead, Bledsoe came roaring back. He went 24/34 for 297 yards and led a TD drive that pulled out the 31-27 win with a minute to play.
New England fans could now peer beyond the confines of their own division. The Denver Broncos were on their way to the top seed in the AFC and a visit to the Rocky Mountains would be a November test of the Pats’ Super Bowl viability. It didn’t go well—outrushed 198-17 and beaten badly, 34-8.
The Patriots hosted a Colts team that was also jousting for the playoffs. Chastened by the way they’d been whipped up front in Denver, New England turned the tables. Martin got the ball 35 times and ran for 141 yards. The Pats controlled the trenches and won 27-13.
New England was 8-4 going into the homestretch. Buffalo was 9-3 and setting the pace in the AFC East. The playoff format of the time had three divisions per conference, with three wild-card teams qualifying. The Patriots were in prime position to at least get one of those berths. Several 6-6 teams, including the Dolphins and Colts, were on the playoff baseline.
A road trip to play the 7-5 San Diego Chargers went further toward solidifying New England’s position. They forced six turnovers, got six sacks and routed the Bolts 45-7. Buffalo lost to Indianapolis. The Patriots were tied for first. They came home and beat up on the Jets 34-10, thanks to a decisive edge in the ground game. The Bills lost again.
New England was now 10-4 and one game up in the division. Even better, they had clinched the tiebreaker edge on both Buffalo and Indianapolis, so it would only take one more win to wrap it up.
But that win would not come in Dallas. The Cowboys had won three of the previous four Super Bowls and even though their ’96 edition wasn’t elite, they were still bound for a division title. Playing in 22mph winds, both offenses bogged down, Bledsoe threw three interceptions and the Patriots lost 12-6.
Good news came the next night though—Buffalo lost to Miami. The Patriots were AFC East champs for the first time since 1986. Now there was the question of securing the 2-seed and a first-round bye. Denver had the top spot wrapped up. New England and Pittsburgh were both 10-5, but the Patriots again enjoyed the favorable tiebreaker situation. If they could beat a bad New York Giants team, it would secure the franchise’s first home playoff game since 1978.
The Saturday afternoon visit to the Meadowlands was shaping up as a complete disaster. Bledsoe threw a Pick-6. He gave up a safety with an intentional grounding in the end zone. The Patriots trailed 22-3 after three quarters.
A 26-yard TD pass to Glenn made it interesting. After a defensive stop, Meggett came through with a 60-yard punt return that rejuvenated the Pats’ chances. Bledsoe led one more drive, capping it off with a 23-yard TD pass to Coates. The 23-22 win capped an 11-5 year and earned New England the 2-seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Steelers-Patriots divisional playoff game was scheduled for early Sunday afternoon. The stakes were dramatically raised late in the day on Saturday. Jacksonville, who had first surprised everyone by sneaking into the playoffs, then further raised eyebrows by winning at Buffalo, delivered the shock of all shocks. The Jags upset the Broncos. New England and Pittsburgh were now playing for the right to host the AFC Championship Game.
Sunday was a foggy day, so much so that television cameras had to use field-level angles for the viewers. The running game would be important and so would getting a lead. Martin ran in from two yards out in the first quarter. Bledsoe found veteran running back Keith Byars on a 34-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-0.
The Patriots were in command and they delivered the knockout blow. Martin took off on a 78-yard touchdown jaunt early in the second quarter to make it 21-0. He went for 166 yards on the day and capped it off with a 23-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter. The pass defense dominated and New England cruised to a 28-3 win.
Oddsmakers installed the Patriots a solid (-7.5) point favorite to win the AFC Championship Game. But this game, played in the late afternoon on Championship Sunday, would be a teeth-grinding affair. Martin again had an early touchdown run. The two teams started trading field goals. New England led 13-6 going into the fourth quarter.
The biggest difference was that the Patriots were getting turnovers. They would hold a 4-2 edge in this key category and the biggest one came midway through the fourth quarter when defensive back Otis Smith scooped up a fumble and took it 47 yards to the house. The New England defense continued their terrific playoff performance, again not allowing a touchdown and securing the 20-6 win.
In New England’s previous Super Bowl appearance, 1985, they had gone to New Orleans as a heavy underdog to a powerful Chicago Bears team and gotten crushed. Eleven years later, the Pats were again going to the Bayou and were again a heavy underdog to a team from the heartland—Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers were a two-touchdown favorite.
The Pats represented themselves better this time, leading 14-10 after the first quarter and only trailing 27-21 in the third quarter. They sacked Favre five times. But they gave up big plays—two long touchdown passes to Favre and a kickoff return for a touchdown to Desmond Howard. Bledsoe was intercepted four times. He was sacked five times, most memorably when Green Bay defensive tackle Reggie White got home three straight times in the fourth quarter. The dream died with a 35-21 loss.
Even so, in the era prior to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, making the Super Bowl was a rare treat for football fans in New England. The real disappointment came after the fact—rumors that Parcells was on the way out were confirmed and he did not fly home with the team. Worse, he took the job with the rival Jets.
Pete Carroll replaced him and continued the success, albeit it at declining levels—an AFC East title in 1997 and a playoff appearance in 1998. It was perhaps the fate of the pre-Brady Patriots to always have a cloud in every silver lining of a season.