After barely missing the playoffs the previous two seasons the New England Patriots were favored to win the AFC East and make a run at the conference crown in 1981. With a roster that boasted seven Pro Bowl players and several talented rookie draft choices (including offensive tackle Brian Holloway, running back Tony Collins and linebacker Don Blackmon), New England appeared a sure thing to challenge the league's elite.
A perfect 4-0 preseason did little to dull the anticipation for a banner year, but by season's end New England had posted the worst record in franchise history with a 2-14 mark. They lost their first four games and dropped their last nine contests. There were several reasons for the collapse. Injuries kept star linebacker Steve Nelson and cornerback Mike Haynes out of action for much of the season. The defensive line seemed to get old overnight and failed to exert consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks, as they managed only 20 sacks all season long.
The problems were painfully evident beginning with the season opener against the Baltimore Colts. The Patriots defense was shredded for 249 rushing yards in a shocking 29-28 defeat.
The Philadelphia Eagles ran for 220 yards the following week in a 13-3 loss on the road, and the defeat prompted Patriots Head Coach Ron Erhardt to bench veteran quarterback Steve Grogan in favor of the younger Matt Cavanaugh in an attempt to reinvigorate the New England offense. Cavanaugh's presence did little to stem the tide, as the Patriots self-destructed in the second half against the Dallas Cowboys in front of a national audience on "Monday Night Football." The Patriots turned the ball over seven times in a 35-17 loss. Turnovers proved a major problem for New England all season as it coughed it up a whopping 50 times.
After an overtime loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, the Patriots finally stopped the bleeding with a 33-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Foxborough in Week Five.
The Patriots registered their second and last victory of the season two weeks later, scoring 31 unanswered second half points to rout the Houston Oilers 38-10. Grogan returned to the starting lineup and threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third to key the surge over the final 30 minutes. The win gave New England a 2-5 record, and the team still held out hopes for a run at the postseason with a second half winning streak. Instead, nine consecutive losses followed, which was sufficient to warrant Erhardt's dismissal at the end of the season.
The losing streak included several games that involved bizarre incidents and misfortune for the Patriots. In Week 12 New England clung to a 17-13 lead over Buffalo in a chilly Rich Stadium with only five seconds left to play. But a 36-yard Hail Mary pass from Joe Ferguson to Roland Hooks gave Buffalo the win.
With a 2-14 record, the Patriots were awarded the first pick in the 1982 draft.