After 25 years filled with agonizing losses and utter futility the New England Patriots fashioned the greatest season in their history in 1985. The Patriots captured a wildcard playoff berth on the final day of the season and then became the first and only team in NFL history to advance to the Super Bowl with three consecutive playoff victories on the road.
The architect of New England's march to glory was Raymond Berry, who in his first full season as head coach, accomplished what none of his predecessors had managed to achieve: a Super Bowl berth.
Under Berry's effective leadership the Patriots developed character, an element that had been noticeably lacking in previous teams. Berry's low-key style seemed the perfect fit for the team as he got his players to believe in themselves and successfully motivated them to achieve what many thought to be unreachable goals.
The season began on a sad note with the news that owner Billy Sullivan was officially putting both the franchise and the stadium up for sale. Severe financial losses had left the team's patriarch with no choice but to part with his beloved team. But as the season unfolded, the club's fiscal plight was all but ignored due to the events that transpired on the gridiron.
No one predicted that the Patriots would be playing in January after their lackluster start to the season. After a season opening 26-20 win over Green Bay in Foxborough, New England dropped three of its next four games to bring many to the conclusion that the 1985 edition of the club was no different than the underachieving clubs of recent years. The culprit in the Patriots rough start was a sluggish offense that managed only one touchdown per game through five consecutive contests. Third-year quarterback Tony Eason showed little resemblance of the promising young passer who lit up the scoreboard after taking over the starting role from Steve Grogan in '84. After throwing only eight interceptions that entire season, Eason served up a whopping 11 in his first six games in 1985.
Eason's afternoon against the Buffalo Bills in Week Six was abruptly cut short in the second quarter when he was driven from the game with a separated shoulder. As Eason left the field to a chorus of boos, the offense was turned over to Grogan, whom many had written off as being over the hill. But after a year riding the bench, the veteran signal-caller turned in some of the most inspired football of his 11-year career.
Berry gave Grogan the green light to call his own plays, a decision that helped bring a sense of confidence to the offense that had been missing. Grogan mixed the pass with the run to maximum efficiency and helped get the offense on track. Grogan's favorite target was wide receiver Stanley Morgan, who eclipsed the club record for career receiving touchdowns. Second-year player Irving Fryar teamed with Morgan to give New England a solid pair of receiving threats. The speedy Fryar also was a dangerous threat on punt returns. Fryar led the NFL with an average of 14.1 yards per punt return and became the first Patriot to return two punts for touchdowns in a season since Mike Haynes in 1976.
With Grogan at the controls New England reeled off six consecutive wins to thrust itself into the thick of the race for the division title. Included in that stretch were home victories over the rival Jets and Dolphins. The 20-13 win over the Jets in Week Seven marked Grogan's first start in more than a year, and the crafty old pro pulled out the game by calling his own number. After hitting Morgan with a 47-yard bomb, Grogan ran a naked bootleg to account for the game-winning score. Two weeks later he provided an encore in a crucial game against the Dolphins. He led the Patriots to two 80-yard scoring drives in the fourth quarter to wipe out a 13-3 deficit and then called his own number again, scoring on a 1-yard run with three minutes remaining to give New England a clutch, 17-13 come-from-behind win.
A key ingredient to the winning streak was the suddenly ferocious New England defense, a unit that led the AFC with 47 takeaways. Don Blackmon and Andre Tippett emerged as the most dominant pair of outside linebackers in the conference. Blackmon was among the team leaders with 76 tackles and eight sacks, while Tippett led the AFC with 16.5 sacks and was named the NFL's defensive player of the year for his superlative play. New England also boasted a solid secondary consisting of cornerbacks Ray Clayborn and Ron Lippett and safeties Fred Marion and Roland James. The defensive line was bolstered by the addition of rookie Garin Veras, whose 14 sacks and penchant for making big plays provided a winning combination.
Just when it appeared the Patriots would never lose again, their season looked to be derailed when Grogan was lost with a broken leg in Week 12. To add insult to injury New England dropped a 16-13 decision in overtime to the Jets to fall into a first place tie with their archrivals. Grogan's injury necessitated the return of a now healthy Eason to the lineup, and instead of the shaky, interception-prone quarterback that began the season, Eason resembled his 1984 form. He led the Patriots to two successive wins to force a Monday Night showdown against the Dolphins in Miami that would decide the AFC East title.
The dreaded Orange Bowl jinx struck again, as the Patriots dropped a heartbreaking 30-27 decision to Miami. The loss forced New England into a must-win situation in the season finale against the explosive Cincinnati Bengals. In the emotional pregame introductions defensive end Julius Adams was given a tremendous ovation by the fans at Sullivan Stadium in his final regular season game. His emotionally charged teammates responded with one of their best efforts of the season, as New England rushed for a season-high 281 yards in a 34-23 win.
Craig James led the assault with 142 yards to finish the season with 1,227 yards rushing, the second highest total in team history. Robert Weathers broke free on a fourth down play to score the clinching touchdown with 1:52 remaining to set off a wild celebration at Foxboro. The fans stormed the field and broke the goal posts into pieces. Unfortunately a few over-exuberant fans nearly electrocuted themselves when a piece of the dismantled goal posts came into contact with an overhead wire as they were crossing Route 1.
Their 11-5 record brought only a wildcard playoff berth, ensuring that the Patriots would not play at home in the postseason. Undaunted, the Patriots went out and concocted a winning formula for the postseason: score first, force turnovers, and run the ball down the opposition's throat. The Jets were the Patriots first victims, as Tony Franklin booted four field goals in a 26-14 New England victory at the Meadowlands. The playoff win was the first for the Patriots since the days of the old AFL.
The following week the Patriots journeyed to Los Angeles to meet the heavily favored Raiders, but the Silver and Black proved to be less than invincible. New England forced six Raider turnovers that they converted into 20 points for a 27-20 victory to finally gain revenge for their 1976 playoff loss. James became the first back to rush for more than 100 yards against the Raiders in 1985, as he ground out 104 yards on 23 carries to set a new Patriot postseason rushing record.
The win sent the Patriots into the AFC Championship Game for the first time in club history, but matched them against the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl where they had not won since 1966. But with Julius Adams' promise of taking the Orange Bowl apart "brick by brick," New England tore apart Don Shula's Dolphins, 31-14, to earn its first trip to the Super Bowl. The Patriots forced six Miami turnovers while Eason tossed three short touchdown passes for 21 unanswered New England points. But the key to the win was an unrelenting ground attack that overpowered the Dolphin defense. Using two fresh sets of backs on the soggy Orange Bowl turf, New England ran an AFC Championship Game record 59 times for 225 yards.
The season ended on a sour note for the Patriots with a 46-10 loss to the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX. For the veterans like Steve Nelson, Steve Grogan, John Hannah, and Julius Adams, it was a frustrating end to a year that had been unmatched in franchise history. The day after the game, a story broke about six Patriots players who were involved in drug use, causing a stir that lingered into the following season. But for once, drug rumors, the team's impending sale, and other off-the-field incidents paled in comparison to the accomplishments of the season.