Despite the considerable progress made by the Patriots since joining the NFL in 1970, the club had not posted a winning season in almost a decade. That finally changed in 1976, as the Patriots won more games in one season than in any year in their history.
The story of the Patriots reclamation began months before the start of the season. Disgruntled quarterback Jim Plunkett was shipped home to the West Coast in early April in a blockbuster deal. New England dealt Plunkett to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for three first-round draft picks and one second-round pick over the next two years. The deal turned out to be a bonanza for the Patriots, who acquired some excellent talent via the draft.
With their two first-rounders in 1976, the Patriots selected Arizona State cornerback Mike Haynes and Ohio State safety Tim Fox. The duo became instant starters for the Patriots and helped solidify New England's most noticeable weakness in the defensive backfield. The draft also netted Pete Brock, a center from Colorado, who filled in at nearly every position along the offensive line for five years before claiming the starting center spot in 1981.
Despite the presence of the talented rookies, the opening portion of the regular- season schedule hardly instilled any confidence for success. In its first four games, New England had to play Baltimore, Miami, Pittsburgh and Oakland, all teams that had won 10 or more games the year before. Fears of an 0-4 start were hardly allayed when the Patriots were beaten 27-13 by the Colts in the season-opener in Foxborough.
Head Coach Chuck Fairbanks was under considerable pressure to produce a victory the following week when the Miami Dolphins came to town, and his young team responded with a brilliant all-around effort in pounding the Dolphins 30-14. Second-year quarterback Steve Grogan had received a vote of confidence from both Fairbanks and team owner Billy Sullivan after his four-interception game in the opener and Grogan responded with a sensational effort. He tossed three touchdown passes and contributed 76 rushing yards to the Patriots total 278 against a befuddled Dolphin defense.
Grogan was at the forefront again the following week when the Patriots upended the Super Bowl- champion Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium. Grogan rallied his club from an 11-point third-quarter deficit with touchdown passes of 38 yards to tight end Russ Francis and 58 yards to wide receiver Darryl Stingley. He then capped the scoring with a 6-yard keeper. The upset victory was arguably the greatest win in team history but proved only to serve as a catalyst for what occurred the following week back home.
Playing before a sellout crowd at Schaefer Stadium, the Patriots thoroughly dismantled the proud Oakland Raiders, 48-17, giving the Silver and Black what turned out to be their lone defeat of the season. The powerful Patriots running game was evident, as New England rushed for just less than 300 yards. Grogan tossed three more touchdown passes and ran for two scores to help give the Patriots a 3-1 record through their first four games.
After suffering a letdown and dropping a game to the Detroit Lions on the road, the Patriots returned home to host a Monday night affair against Joe Namath's New York Jets. New England tore into their old tormentors, sending a message to the entire football world on the national telecast by rolling over Lou Holtz's helpless squad by a 41-7 count. Grogan ran for 103 of his club's 330 rushing yards, including a 41-yard touchdown scamper. Unfortunately the game turned out to be a public relations nightmare for the Patriots due to unruly fan behavior. Several members of the police were attacked and hundreds of drunken fans were arrested.
The Patriots split their next two games before accelerating into high gear and sweeping their last six games to finish with the best record in franchise history at 11-3. Many of the games were won with ease, but several contained memorable moments.
On Nov. 7 against the Buffalo Bills, Haynes returned a punt 89 yards for a touchdown. It was the first punt return for a touchdown in the franchise's 16-year history. Proving it was no fluke, Haynes duplicated the feat four weeks later against Denver. Haynes also led the club with eight interceptions, making him an easy choice for AFC Rookie of the Year.
New England clinched a playoff berth with a 27-6 win over New Orleans on Dec. 5 for its first trip to the postseason in 13 years and its first as a full-fledged member of the NFL. The Patriots closed out the regular season with a convincing 31-14 victory over the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Grogan scored his 12th touchdown of the season to set a new single-season record for quarterbacks.
Despite the win, the Patriots and Colts finished tied with identical 11-3 records, and the Colts claimed the division title with a better divisional record. Having to settle for the wild card meant New England had to travel to Oakland for a rematch with the Raiders in the first round of the playoffs. Although the Patriots had handed Oakland their only defeat of the season in Week Four, they were still considered the underdogs to the more experienced Raiders.
Just as they had done in its previous meeting, New England seized control of the game with a flurry of touchdowns. With Oakland massing the line of scrimmage to stop the run, Grogan found success through the air, hitting Francis for a 26-yard score and then passing his club downfield to set up running back Jesse Phillips 3-yard score to give the Patriots a 21-10 lead after three quarters.
Oakland answered with a touchdown at the start of the final quarter to slice the lead to four points at 21-17. The last eight minutes of the game was filled with several controversial plays that still live in Patriots lore. Facing a third-and-inches situation just inside the Oakland 30-yard line, Brock jumped offside, forcing the Patriots out of their short-yardage offense. On the next play Grogan attempted to hit Francis over the middle for a drive-sustaining first down, but Raider linebacker Phil Villipiano all but tackled Francis before the ball arrived. The pass fell incomplete as a nearby official refused to throw a penalty flag (two years later the NFL added an extra official assigned to the dead area where Francis had been). John Smith's 50-yard field goal attempt fell just short of the crossbar, giving Oakland one last chance with 4:12 remaining.
Oakland quarterback Ken Stabler deftly maneuvered his club downfield but faced a desperate third-and-18 situation at the New England 27-yard line. Stabler's pass to former Patriot Carl Garrett sailed incomplete, but referee Ben Dreith threw a late flag on the Patriots Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton for roughing the passer. The penalty gave the Raiders a first down on the New England 12, and Oakland moved in for the kill. Aided by two more penalties on the Patriots for unsportsmanlike conduct, the Raiders scored the game-winning touchdown on a 1-yard run by Stabler with 10 seconds remaining. The game remains one of the most bitter defeats in franchise history and makes the name Ben Dreith (the referee who flagged Hamilton) infamous in New England to this day.
The controversial loss did not detract from what was the finest season in Patriots history. The club either set or tied 43 team and individual records, and postseason accolades reigned down on the team. Fairbanks was named NFL Coach of the Year and was rewarded with a new contract and a hefty raise. After not having a single player selected for the Pro Bowl the last five years, four Patriots — Haynes, Francis and offensive linemen John Hannah and Leon Gray — were named to the squad. Though a new era of winning football had dawned in New England, the next several years saw the team struggle with its newfound success. Nothing, it seemed, ever came easy for the Patriots.