Coming off a disappointing 6-10 record in 1995, hopes for the New England Patriots in 1996 were for a return to the playoffs. For once the fans' expectations were not only met but also exceeded, as the Patriots fashioned the most exciting and successful season in franchise history. New England's march to Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans cut a path that was filled with peaks and valleys. New England was floundering with a 4-3 record near midseason when it ran off four consecutive wins against division opponents to launch a drive to the postseason.
The 1996 Patriots team blended a healthy mix of established veterans and young players that seemed to mesh at the right time during the season. In his fourth NFL season, quarterback Drew Bledsoe fashioned the most productive year of his young career. He led the league in pass attempts (623) for the third consecutive season and completions (373) for the second time in three years. His 4,096 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 2.4 percent interception ratio totals were each ranked third in the league. He also set a personal single-season best with a quarterback rating of 83.7, fifth in the AFC. When Bledsoe completed more than 55 percent of his passes, the Patriots were undefeated (13-0, including the playoffs).
Running back Curtis Martin showed no signs of a sophomore jinx, as the second-year runner from Pittsburgh totaled 1,152 yards on the ground along with 14 touchdowns on his 316 carries, which earned him a return trip to the Pro Bowl. His 14 rushing touchdowns led the AFC and he became the first Patriot running back since Jim Nance to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Martin saved his best for the postseason however, when he scored five touchdowns and rushed for more than 250 yards in three postseason games.
But the steady improvement of the New England defense contributed to the Super Bowl drive. Defensive end Willie McGinest blossomed into a star while leading the team with 9.5 sacks. Linebackers Chris Slade and Ted Johnson emerged as solid players, with Slade rushing the passer (second on the team with 7 sacks) from the outside and Johnson, in his second year, becoming one of the league's premier run-stoppers in the middle. Second-year cornerback Ty Law and rookie strong safety Lawyer Milloy teamed with veterans Willie Clay and Otis Smith to form a solid secondary.
Then there was rookie No. 1 draft pick Terry Glenn from Ohio State, who turned in an unbelievable first season and gave the Patriots a long-needed deep threat at wide receiver. Glenn shattered the NFL's rookie receiving record with 90 receptions for 1,132 yards.
He initially drew the ire of Head Coach Bill Parcells for his slow return from a hamstring injury during training camp and was referred to as "she" in one of Parcells' press conferences. But despite missing the season opener in Miami, Glenn started each of the remaining eighteen games and latched onto six touchdowns. His outstanding performance earned him Rookie of the Year honors by both Sports Illustrated and UPI, and he also was one of three Patriots players selected to the USA Today All-Pro Team.
The season could not have started worse, as the Patriots dropped two straight games on the road to divisional opponents to begin the year 0-2. New England turned the ball over four times in a 24-10 loss at Miami. The following week, the Patriots were denied a touchdown on a first-and-goal from the Buffalo 2-yard line with less than a minute to play in a 17-10 defeat to the Bills.
The Patriots responded with a three-game winning streak, routing Arizona, squeaking past Jacksonville in overtime and piling up 46 points (the highest one-game point production in the NFL in 1996) against the Baltimore Ravens. But a 27-22 loss at home to the Washington Redskins in Week Six left the Patriots with a mediocre 3-3 record, and many wondered if a repeat of 1995 was to come.
But New England silenced its critics by ripping off four straight wins over divisional foes to seize control of the AFC East race. The Patriots blitzed long-time nemesis Miami with 28 second-half points in Week Nine to break open a 14-14 game at halftime and go on to a 42-23 victory. The following week in the Meadowlands the Patriots rallied from a 21-0 deficit to defeat the Jets 31-27. Bledsoe hit veteran running back Keith Byars for a 2-yard touchdown to put New England in the lead for the first time in the game. The Patriots defense then forced the Jets to turn the ball over on downs deep in New England territory to secure the victory.
Rather than hang their heads after a humiliating 34-8 trouncing at the hands of the Denver Broncos in Week 11, the Patriots ran off another three-game winning streak to clinch the AFC East championship. A decisive 34-10 route of the New York Jets before the home crowd at Foxboro Stadium in Week 14 gave New England its first division title since 1986. Two weeks later the Patriots wrapped up a first-round playoff bye with a 23-22, come-from-behind win over Parcells' former club, the New York Giants. The Patriots rallied from a 22-0 halftime deficit by scoring 23 unanswered points, including an electrifying 60-yard punt return for a touchdown by David Meggett that helped key the stirring comeback.
Two weeks later the Patriots steamrolled the Pittsburgh Steelers, 28-3, in a divisional playoff game played in a fog-engulfed Foxboro Stadium. Martin set a New England postseason record with 166 rushing yards and three touchdowns, while the New England defense held Pittsburgh to only 212 total yards. The victory sent the Patriots into the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Before a sold out crowd at Foxboro Stadium in the first-ever home title game for the Patriots, the New England defense shut down Jacksonville running back Natrone Means and contained mobile quarterback Mark Brunell. Otis Smith's 47-yard fumble return with 2:34 left to play helped clinch the 20-6 victory and send the Patriots to New Orleans to face the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
New England rallied from an early 10-0 deficit to post two touchdowns on a pair of Bledsoe scoring passes to take a 14-10 lead after one quarter. But 17 second quarter Packer points put New England in a hole they just couldn't overcome, as they fell to Green Bay, 35-21. But even a Super Bowl loss couldn't dampen the spirits of Patriots fandom that stretched across all of New England. Although losing Parcells was a bitter pill to swallow after enjoying the most successful season in team history, everyone believed the best was yet to come.