'76 Pats squelch late rally, hold off Brady's bunch to win all-time Patriots playoff, 20-14
Welcome to PFW's and Patriots.com's All-Time Patriots Tournament Championship Game between Chuck Fairbanks' 1976 New England Patriots and Bill Belichick's 2001 Super Bowl champion Patriots. After battling their way through two tough matches, each team finds itself only one game away from claiming the ultimate prize, unofficially being declared the best team in Patriots history.
PFW has spared no expense in bringing in the top analysts to break down this titanic match up. Here are the opinions of four football experts on what can be expected in this game:
Bryan Morry, PFW editor: "This should be a very exciting matchup which is why these two teams were seeded No. 1 and No. 2. The 2001 Patriots defense was not a great run-stopping defense, and they will have to prevent big plays and play tough red zone defense against the '76 team. That was their staple. Both teams are very physical, which brings another element to this game. Many of the games in this tournament have been decided right at the end, and both Tom Brady and Steve Grogan excel in that situation."
Paul Perillo, PFW assistant editor: "I think the '76 team may well be the best team, but are they any better than the St. Louis Rams team the Patriots beat in the Super Bowl last year? Grogan threw 20 interceptions in 1976 and if the 2001 Patriots pick off a couple and return them for scores they can win this game."
Steve Grogan, 1976 Patriots quarterback: "I think we match up well with the 2001 Patriots. The '76 team ran the ball really well, and at times the 2001 club had trouble against the run. But the way they threw the ball with Brady and his short passing game that would be an advantage for them. It should be a pretty evenly matched game."
Tim Fox, 1976 Patriots strong safety: "They'd struggle against our offense because we had a very strong running game with Sam Cunningham and Andy Johnson. But I'm also guessing they'd probably put up some points against us because we played a pretty conservative defense, and Brady could have sliced and diced us quite a bit."
'76 Patriots Control the First Half
Game day at Foxboro Stadium dawns cool and wet, as a light but steady rain has left the field damp with a few slick spots. The '76 Patriots win the coin toss, and after Jesse Phillips returns Adam Vinatieri's kickoff back to the '76 Pats 37-yard line the war of strategy begins. Bill Belichick inserts Bryan Cox into the lineup to challenge the '76 Pats vaunted running attack and the move works to perfection. The champs target Cunningham, and three straight runs by Fairbanks' club fail to net a first down.
Belichick's club fares no better on its first possession, as the '76 Patriots cornerbacks, Mike Haynes and Bob Howard, challenge David Patten and Troy Brown. "Bobby Howard could anticipate the short pass and was adept at breaking up slants, so he would have been very effective against Troy Brown," said Fox.
Antowain Smith fails to pick up a first down on third-and-inches against a '76 Patriots squad that ranked eighth in the league in rushing defense. It is a sign of things to come as the champs will run for only a meager 59 yards all day.
The '76 Pats receive the first break of the game when Cox is flagged for a late hit on Johnson. Grogan takes advantage of the break by hitting All-World tight end Russ Francis and then Darryl Stingley for short gains that bring his club into the red zone. There, the 2001 Pats defense stiffens, forcing the '76 Patriots to settle for a 29-yard John Smith field goal and a 3-0 lead.
After a good return by Kevin Faulk brings the ball to midfield, Charlie Weis unveils a new wrinkle to free up Troy Brown. Weis sends Brown in motion to force Howard to chase him and the ploy works, as Brown makes two clutch third- down receptions. At the start of the second quarter, Smith blasts into the end zone from 2 yards out to culminate a 58-yard drive and put the champs in front, 7-3.
Disaster strikes the 2001 team minutes later when Patten loses the football on his own 13-yard line. The champs again demonstrate why they were one of the top-ranked teams in red zone defense by denying the '76 Pats a touchdown. On third down Lawyer Milloy breaks up a pass intended for Francis and the '76 Pats again are forced to settle for a chip-shot field goal by Smith.
On the '76 Pats next possession they steal a page from Weis' playbook. Grogan rolls right with the appearance of running the ball only to pull up and throw back across the field to the left side where Johnson has slipped out of the backfield unattended. Tebucky Jones makes a diving attempt for the tackle but is left sprawled on the damp sod as Johnson plods 58-yards for the touchdown that gives his team a 13-7 halftime lead.
Last Gasp Rally by Champs Falls Short
The '76 Pats pick up right where they left off. Using Johnson to grind out consistent gains, Grogan marches his club 93 yards, with a 38-yard completion to Francis bringing the ball deep into enemy territory. Four plays later Cunningham follows All-Pros Leon Gray and John Hannah into the end zone to up the lead to 20-7.
Trailing by double figures for the first time in the tournament, Tom Brady is placed in the unenviable position of leading his team from behind. But with the '76 Pats secondary playing deep to take away the quick strike Brady shows patience, throwing underneath the coverage to move his team steadily downfield.
After a 27-yard catch and run by Brown, a swing pass to Marc Edwards nearly gets the score, but Fox manages to knock the burly fullback out of bounds just short of the flag. Brady gets the touchdown on the next play with a quick flip to Brown to slice the lead to 20-14.
The '76 Patriots are unable to eat any time off the clock due to an aroused Belichick defense and can manage only two first downs in the final quarter. A near disaster occurs when Francis is stripped of the ball near midfield by Terrell Buckley, but on two successive possessions Brady is sacked on third down and the stalemate continues.
Only four minutes remain when Brady's Bunch takes control of the ball on its own 20-yard line. Brady starts the drive with a 23-yard completion to Brown for his 10th catch of the game. Brady is magnificent on the drive, converting one third down situation and two crucial fourth downs to bring his team to the '76 Patriots 14-yard line with only 12 seconds left on the clock.
For the 1976 Patriots the scenario must seem eerily familiar. Against Oakland in the 1976 AFC Divisional playoffs they appeared to stop the Raiders from driving for the game-winning score, only to be thwarted by a questionable roughing the passer penalty. This time there is no Ben Dreith to confound them, but they still have Brady to contend with.
Brady's next throw sails incomplete leaving time for just one more play. Taking the snap from the shotgun, Brady stands up to a heavy rush and finds Patten open at the 5-yard line. Patten makes the catch but as he tries to make a cut he slips on the wet turf. Fox latches onto him and the two struggle as Patten stretches the ball out toward the goal line, but falls 2 yards shy of the end zone. The clock ticks down to 00:00 and the '76 Patriots begin the mad celebration that they never got to experience.
PFW publisher Fred Kirsch presents '76 Pats owner Billy Sullivan with the All-Time Patriots Tournament Trophy, and Sullivan launches into a 20-minute auditory that leaves everyone longing for a TV commercial break. Of all the members of the victorious squad, perhaps their leader best expresses their emotions.
"I was very happy for the Patriots when they won the Super Bowl last year, but I was also envious of them, too," said Grogan. "You think back at how close you actually came a few times to winning a championship, and you saw the elation on their faces and the excitement they were going through and you just wish you could have been a part of that."
It took 26 years but the 1976 Patriots finally have their moment, which proves that some things are worth waiting for. Congratulations 1976 New England Patriots, the All-Time Patriots team!
Foxboro Stadium, Foxboro MA
|1976 New England Patriots
|2001 New England Patriots
NE '76-FG J.Smith 29 5:55
NE '01-A.Smith 2 run (Vinatieri kick) 14:54
NE '76-FG J.Smith 22 8:26
NE '76-A.Johnson 58 pass from Grogan (J.Smith kick) 4:23
NE '76-Cunningham 7 run (J.Smith kick) 6:12
NE '01-T.Brown 1 pass from Brady (Vinatieri kick) 14:20
MVP: Andy Johnson '76 NE