After making the playoffs for two straight seasons, the Patriots missed out on the postseason in 1987. Inconsistency plagued the team, with their 8-7 record a clear reflection of their mediocre play. Only a three-game winning streak to end the season allowed the team to climb above the .500.
The Patriots attempted to bolster their subpar offensive line with the acquisition of guard Sean Farrell from Tampa Bay for three draft choices. New England also selected tackle Bruce Armstrong from Louisville with their first choice in the 1987 draft. Armstrong would become a fixture at left tackle for the Patriots for the next 14 seasons.
The season began with a win over the Miami Dolphins in a heavy downpour at Foxboro Stadium. More than two inches of rain fell as New England rallied from a 21-7 deficit to post a 28-21 victory. The Patriots scored the tying and go-ahead touchdowns less than a minute apart midway through the third quarter. Tony Collins' 7-yard touchdown run was quickly followed by cornerback Ronnie Lippett's 20-yard interception return of a Marino pass for the game-winning score.
A 43-24 drubbing at the hands of the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football" the following week was the last game played before the season was interrupted by the second regular-season player's strike in NFL history.
After canceling one week of play, the league opted to continue with teams stocked with replacement players. Several Patriots, including Collins, Clayborn and Tippett, crossed the picket line and joined the motley crew assembled by general manager Patrick Sullivan. New England managed to win two of the three games played during the strike, including a memorable win against the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome.
The Patriots had succeeded in acquiring former Boston College star quarterback Doug Flutie from the Chicago Bears during the strike for only an eighth-round draft choice. Flutie sparked New England to a 23-13 victory over Houston, completing 15-of-25 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown. Though Flutie's acquisition had merely been intended as a stop-gap measure, his presence on the roster would spark a quarterback controversy that would last the better part of three years in Foxborough.
When the strike ended the following week, the Patriots appeared rusty. Former Patriots coach Ron Meyer earned his first victory over his old team when his Indianapolis Colts forced three turnovers en route to a 30-16 win. The following week the Patriots lost three of their starters for the remainder of the season in a costly 26-23 win over the Los Angeles Raiders.
Eason, Blackmon and Roland James all went down against the Raiders. The neck injury sustained by Blackmon effectively ended his playing career. Blackmon had developed into a force at outside linebacker for New England and appeared to have a long career in front of him. Instead, he was forced to retire.
Injury problems continued to plague the club as the season wore on. Grogan was lost two weeks later in a grueling contest against the Dallas Cowboys at Foxborough. Untested third-stringer Tom Ramsey was thrown into the breach and appeared to be the hero when he found Morgan for a 5-yard score to put the Pats ahead 20-17 with only 1:55 remaining.
But in what may have been the key sequence of the 1987 season, the Patriots faltered badly in a clutch situation. New England allowed Dallas quarterback Danny White to convert a fourth-and-13 for a 43-yard gain to help set up a game-tying field goal. Once in overtime, the Cowboys ended matters quickly. In his first-ever NFL start, Herschel Walker ran through several Patriots defenders on his way to a 60-yard touchdown dash.
The devastating loss plunged New England to a mediocre 4-5 record. Staying true to their inconsistent nature the Patriots rebounded the following week to post their most impressive effort of the season against the eventual division champion Colts. New England forced five turnovers and got a flawless performance from Ramsey in a 24-0 whitewashing of Indianapolis.
But New England simply could not stand prosperity and wasted a valiant comeback from a 31-10 deficit and dropped another overtime decision, this one 34-31 to Philadelphia. Franklin missed two potential game-winning field goals and the loss deflated the team and all but eliminated it from postseason contention.
Injuries and the strike-ridden season certainly played a role in the Patriots demise, but New England's once rich talent-base was beginning to erode. The 1987 season was the last for three-time Pro Bowl linebacker Steve Nelson, who ended his 14-year career with exactly 1,776 tackles. With Nelson and Blackmon now gone and age creeping into many key areas of the team, the Patriots window of opportunity for a return to the Super Bowl was narrowing more rapidly than anyone realized.