For the second straight year the Patriots took a step backward rather than forward in their quest to return to the Super Bowl. Although New England established a new franchise record by qualifying for the playoffs for the third consecutive season, a 9-7 record and a quick exit in the first round of the playoffs left Patriots Nation gnashing its teeth once again. The year began on a sad note with the passing of team founder Billy Sullivan, who died on Feb. 23 at the age of 82.
The 1998 season had taken on ominous overtones long before the first kickoff, as Parcells lured Martin to the rival Jets in the offseason. Rather than match the Jets lucrative free agent offer, the Patriots instead opted to take the compensation package and drafted running back Robert Edwards from Georgia with their first- round pick in the 1998 NFL draft.
The season started on a down note as the Patriots dropped their fifth straight season opener on the road in a 27-21 loss on a Monday night to the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. The Patriots drew a firestorm of criticism for a myriad of mistakes and penalties in Denver, but responded with a four-game winning streak to silence their detractors. The crest of the winning streak came in Week Five with a thorough 40-10 domination of the Kansas City Chiefs. Edwards registered his first 100-yard rushing game as a Patriot, and New England rolled up 206 rushing yards for their highest rushing total in five years. The Patriots also tallied a new single-game team record 31 first downs and controlled the ball for a whopping 41:48 in an awesome display of offensive football.
Despite another 100-yard game by Edwards the following week, the Patriots dropped a 24-14 decision to Parcells and the Jets before a national "Monday Night Football" audience. Edwards set an NFL rookie record by scoring a touchdown in each of his first six NFL games, and his first quarter touchdown helped the Patriots to a 14-10 halftime lead. But the Jets rallied for two fourth quarter touchdowns as the New England defense seemed helpless to stop Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde.
The emotional loss, coupled with injuries to Patriots wide receivers Glenn, Troy Brown and Henry Ellard, sent the Pats into an offensive funk. They managed only 50 points in dropping three of their next four games, but just when it seemed New England was doomed to mediocrity, they rebounded behind Bledsoe's play with three straight wins.
Despite breaking his index finger in two places, Bledsoe threw for 423 yards and a pair of touchdowns in an exciting 26-23 Patriots victory over Miami in Week 11. He led a 15-play, 80-yard drive that he culminated with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Shawn Jefferson with 29 seconds remaining. In what many called the most clutch drive of his career, Bledsoe converted three third-down situations and two fourth-down plays in the spine-tingling march.
The win got New England back over the .500 mark at 6-5 and set up another crucial game the following week against another divisional opponent in the Buffalo Bills. The game marked the return of hometown favorite Doug Flutie as the new Buffalo quarterback, and the diminutive signal caller didn't disappoint. Flutie threw for 339 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but in the second nail-biting finish in as many weeks, Bledsoe found Ben Coates at the back of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown on the game's final play in a dramatic 25-21 Patriots victory. The scoring pass had been set up by two controversial calls by the officials, the second a pass interference ruling on a Hail Mary intended for Glenn as time expired.
The Patriots brought their new-found momentum into Pittsburgh and rolled over the Steelers, 23-9. Glenn set a franchise record with 193 receiving yards, 86 of them coming on a touchdown throw from Bledsoe in the second quarter. Nose tackle Chad Eaton beat Steelers All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson for three sacks as the New England defense limited the Steelers to a mere three field goals.
Despite Edwards' 196 rushing yards in Week 14, the Patriots dropped a crucial game in St. Louis, 32-18, and also lost Glenn for the rest of the season with a broken ankle. Bledsoe completed a 4-yard pass to tight end Lovett Purnell to become the Patriots' all-time completion leader, but his broken finger made it increasingly more difficult for him to throw the football accurately and it finally forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
Without their star quarterback and receiver, the Patriots were given little chance to defeat the San Francisco 49ers at Foxborough in Week 15. But reserve quarterback Scott Zolak hit both Edwards and Jefferson for first half touchdowns. Zolak then rallied New England for 10 fourth-quarter points to pull out a 24-21 victory. With the win the Patriots clinched a playoff berth for the third consecutive season.
Playing without Bledsoe, Glenn and linebacker Ted Johnson, the Pats were no match for the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the AFC playoffs. Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor ran for 162 yards in leading his team to a convincing 25-10 victory that ended the season for the Patriots.
But the playoff loss seemed to take a backseat to off-the-field developments. Team owner Robert Kraft delivered a shocker during a Nov. 1 press conference when he announced he would be moving the Patriots to Hartford, Conn., for the 2001 season. Connecticut Governor John Rowland agreed to build a 68,000-seat facility as part of a $280 million stadium proposal to house the team.
The announcement came after fruitless negotiations between Kraft and Boston politicians over funding for a new stadium package in Boston. The news rocked all of Patriots Nation, as the thought of having its team move to Connecticut after 38 years was almost impossible to contemplate.