As the defending AFC champions the New England Patriots main goal in 1986 was to return to the postseason and capture the Super Bowl victory that eluded them. Although the club succeeded in winning their first AFC East Division title in eight seasons, the Patriots season ended abruptly with a playoff loss to the eventual AFC champion Broncos in Denver.
The Patriots suffered a severe blow before the season got underway when perennial All-Pro guard John Hannah announced his retirement on June 30. The vaunted Patriots running attack, a staple of New England teams for more than a decade, virtually evaporated without Hannah. As a team, the Patriots averaged only 2.9 yards per rush and ranked dead last in the NFL.
The burden of moving the offense fell on Tony Eason's shoulders and he responded with one of the finest seasons ever by a Patriots quarterback. New England was the second-highest scoring team in football with 412 points, due in no small part to Eason. He employed a short passing game that helped him compile an 89.2 passer rating, third-best in the NFL, and completed 61.6 percent of his passes.
Eason gave an early sign of his breakout season with a record-setting performance in Week Three against the Seattle Seahawks, throwing for a team-record 414 yards to break Babe Parilli's mark that had stood for 22 years. Despite his 26-of-45 effort and three touchdown passes, the Patriots suffered their first defeat of the season. Seattle blocked two Rich Camarillo punts and rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to post a 38-31 win at Foxborough.
The heartbreaking loss began a stretch that saw New England drop three of its next four games. Sandwiched between a road loss to John Elway's Broncos in Denver and a home loss to the division-rival Jets, the Patriots registered a 34-7 thumping of the Miami Dolphins. Although Eason was forced from the game with bruised ribs, the defense stepped up by intercepting three Dan Marino passes.
Steve Grogan took over at quarterback the next two weeks as Eason mended and the 12-year veteran was stellar. He threw three touchdowns and posted a career-high 401 yards in the 31-24 loss to the Jets in Week Six, and followed that with three more as the Patriots trounced the Steelers in Pittsburgh, 34-0. The win was the first of seven straight for New England, a winning streak that propelled them past the Jets and into first place in the AFC East.
The ability of the club to pull out close games was evident for three consecutive weeks during the streak, starting with a win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 11. Trailing 28-16 in the fourth quarter, Eason hit Irving Fryar for a 6-yard score to slice the lead to five with seven minutes left. With 1:45 remaining the Patriots moved from their own 13 to the Rams 25, thanks in large part to Eason's 21-yard scramble. With time left for only one play, Eason lofted a high pass to a host of players stationed in the right corner of the end zone. Stanley Morgan tipped the Hail Mary pass to teammate Fryar, giving New England a dramatic 30-28 victory.
When the Patriots arrived in New Orleans, injuries had taken their toll with Andre Tippett, Steve Nelson, Craig James, and Fryar on the mend. Rookie Eugene Profit blocked a Saints punt and Mosi Tatupu returned 17 yards for a touchdown and moments later rookie defensive end Brent Williams returned a fumble 21 yards for the game-clinching score in a 21-20 win.
Two consecutive losses followed, putting the Patriots in a must-win situation in the season finale at the Orange Bowl.
With Eason knocked out of the game, the onus once again fell on Grogan. As he had so many times before, the veteran came through with a magnificent relief effort, completing 15-of-24 for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Twice Grogan rallied the Patriots from seven-point deficits, scoring himself on a 7-yard run to tie the game at 27-27, then hooking up with Morgan for a 30-yard touchdown with only 44 seconds remaining.
Morgan's clutch grab was his 84th reception of the season, a mark that easily shattered the existing club record. The 10th-year veteran from Tennessee enjoyed his finest season, earning his third trip to the Pro Bowl. Joining Morgan were Tippett, cornerback Ray Clayborn, Tatupu, and kicker Tony Franklin, who became the first Patriot to lead the league in scoring since 1980.
Morgan added two more touchdown receptions in New England's playoff encounter with the Denver Broncos, but Elway's 48-yard touchdown pass to Vance Johnson on a free play (Patriots linebacker Don Blackmon had jumped offside) put Denver in front to stay in a tough 22-17 loss at Mile High Stadium. The game would mark the last playoff appearance for the Patriots for almost a decade, as injuries and poor drafting would see the club begin a gradual decline.