After failing to make the playoffs in 1987 a return to the postseason was the goal for the Patriots in 1988. But for the second straight season, injuries to key defensive starters, in addition to a one-dimensional attack, and the ongoing saga regarding the team's ownership troubles, doomed New England to another year of watching the playoffs from the comfort of their living room television sets.
The season started on a high note as New England rolled over the New York Jets 28-3 in a rainstorm at Foxborough. Steve Grogan opened the season at quarterback for Head Coach Raymond Berry and the 14-year veteran responded with a fine afternoon. Grogan passed for 256 yards and two touchdowns, both going to wide receiver Irving Fryar.
The Opening Day success was short-lived for New England, as three straight losses followed. Sandwiched around two lopsided defeats on the road was a damaging 16-14 loss at home to the eventual AFC East champion Buffalo Bills, a team the Patriots had beaten 11 consecutive times. New England led 14-3 at halftime, but after All-Pro linebacker Andre Tippett left the game with a severe groin injury, the Patriots pass rush evaporated. Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly completed 14-of-15 passes for 108 yards in leading the Bills to 13 straight points, the last three coming on kicker Scott Norwood's 41-yard field goal with 11 seconds remaining.
By Week Five the Patriots found themselves in dire straits. Sporting a 1-3 record, Berry elected to start Tom Ramsey at quarterback against the Indianapolis Colts. An ineffective Ramsey managed to put only seven points on the board, and was replaced by hometown hero Doug Flutie at the start of the fourth quarter. Flutie drove New England 70 yards on six plays in his first possession, hitting Stanley Morgan from 26 yards away for a touchdown to put the Patriots ahead 14-7. The Colts rallied for two scores to pull ahead 17-14 with 2:23 left to play. Flutie then drove the Patriots 80 yards in nine plays for the game-winning touchdown. Flutie, who either ran or passed on eight of the nine plays of the drive, capped the march with a 13-yard bootleg with 23 seconds left to play to drive the Foxboro faithful into a frenzy.
The dramatic win seemed to rally the moribund Patriots, as New England won six of its next eight games with Flutie at the helm. In fact, Berry opted to redirect the focus of the offense around super-rookie John Stephens. New England's first-round draft pick from Northwestern Louisiana State became the ultimate workhorse in the Patriots backfield. Stephens set a new club record for rushing attempts (297) and became the first Patriots rookie to surpass the 1,000-yard rushing mark with 1,168 yards. For his efforts Stephens was named AFC Rookie of the Year and earned an invitation to the Pro Bowl.
With Stephens pounding out yardage on the ground, Flutie was mostly relegated to handing off and throwing the occasional rollout pass. But he produced the club's most impressive performance of the season in a 30-7 demolition of Mike Ditka's Chicago Bears in Week Nine. He threw for four touchdowns, including an 80-yard strike to Irving Fryar on the game's first play. The meeting was the first for the two clubs since Super Bowl XX, and Flutie's play helped ease the painful memories of the one-sided loss (as well as serve as payback for disparaging remarks directed at him by Bears quarterback Jim McMahon).
A costly three-point loss to Indianapolis in Week 13 set up three must-win games at the end of the season. The Patriots defense responded by setting several new records against Seattle the following week, holding the Seahawks to a mere 65 yards of total offense and only two first downs in a 13-7 New England victory.
In a controversial move Berry replaced Flutie with veteran Tony Eason for the game against Tampa Bay in Week 15. Eason was making his first start in 23 games after recovering from numerous injuries. Playing in frigid conditions in Foxboro with a wind chill of minus-25 degrees, New England managed a 10-7 victory in overtime over the Buccaneers. Jason Staurovsky's 27-yard field goal on the Patriots first possession of the extra session gave New England their first overtime victory in franchise history.
In order to secure a playoff berth in the season's final week the Patriots needed a win in Denver, a place where they had not managed a victory in 20 years. But New England squandered numerous scoring opportunities in a 21-10 loss to the Broncos. Much to the consternation of the fans watching back home, Flutie remained on the sidelines as Eason and Steve Grogan helped the Patriots roll up more than 300 yards of offense but managed to score only 10 points despite six possessions inside the Denver 30-yard line.
The disappointing news on the field served as the perfect ending to the Sullivan Era in New England. After struggling to hold on to his beloved football team the past four years in the face of massive debts, Billy Sullivan finally agreed to sell the club on July 28. Victor Kiam, the owner of Remington Products, Inc., officially became the new team owner and chairman on Oct. 28, with his business partner, Fran Murray, becoming vice chairman.