Many of the 53,883 fans that made their way into Foxboro Stadium on Jan. 2, 1994, did so with a great deal of uncertainty on their minds. And all of the New England Patriots that suited up that day did so with even more uncertainty.
The 1993 season-finale against the Miami Dolphins would have made this list based solely on its merits as a football game. With three ties, three lead changes and enough big plays down the stretch to fill a seasons worth of highlights tapes, the game is worthy of remembrance.
But given the bizarre (isnt it amazing how often that word comes up in Patriots history) nature of the events that surrounded the game, its a must for any top-10 list, and it checks in at No. 8 on this one.
It would be another 19 days before Robert Kraft stepped in and saved the Patriots franchise. Owner James B. Orthwein was poised and ready to relocate the team to his hometown of St. Louis, and the uncertainty on everyones mind dealt with whether or not this would be the Patriots last game in New England.
Bill Parcells had arrived almost one year earlier and with him came hope of better things to come. Drew Bledsoe had been a Patriot for less than nine months and he, too, was showing how much better things could get. If only the team would stick around long enough for that promise to be fulfilled.
The people here are really excited about this team, which has started to build for the future, Bledsoe said in the Boston Herald after tossing the game-winning touchdown pass in the 33-27 overtime win. This area deserves a winning team and I think were going to be one.
Bledsoe was right on both counts Kraft saved the team from relocating and the Patriots turned quickly into winners in 1994 by posting a 10-6 mark and earning a Wild Card berth. The former was made possible on Jan. 21, 1994, when Orthwein struck a deal with Kraft, allowing him to keep the franchise in New England. The sale became official a month later and the stadium has been sold out ever since.
The latter was a bit more complicated but the Patriots emergence on the NFL scene was due in large part to Bledsoe, who enjoyed his first of three Pro Bowl seasons in 94. In the 93 finale against Miami, he gave all of New England a peek at what they would become accustomed to in the years to come.
Parcells recognized Bledsoes talents quickly and transformed his normally conservative offensive approach to follow suit. He had his young gunslinger chuck it 49 times in a 19-16 overtime loss in his first-ever game at Foxboro Stadium in Week Two. Despite some bumps and bruises along the way (Bledsoe missed three full games and parts of two others with a left knee strain) he and the team developed and rebounded from a 1-11 start to end the season playing as well as any team in the league.
Winners of three straight entering that final game, the Patriots not only hoped to close the season on a high, but also aimed to keep the hated Dolphins out of the playoffs. Early on, it looked like theyd achieve both with relative ease.
Bledsoe and the Patriots passing game took advantage of unseasonably warm temperatures (48 degrees at game time) and built a quick 10-0 lead. Matt Bahr opened the scoring with a 31-yard field goal and Bledsoe tossed the first of his four touchdown passes on the day. An 11-yard strike to Ben Coates capped a monster 16-play, 89-yard drive midway through the second quarter.
The Dolphins, playing without Dan Marino who was lost for the season in Week Six with a ruptured Achilles tendon, rallied behind their young, left-handed backup, Scott Mitchell. He went 9-for-10 for 96 yards in the first half, and Mark Higgs 5-yard touchdown run three minutes after Coates catch closed the first half scoring with the Patriots holding a 10-7 lead.
The second half was an old fashioned shootout. An early turnover by the Patriots gave Miami a chance to take the lead, but the defense forced a 29-yard Pete Stoyanovich field goal and the game was tied at 10. Later in the third, the Patriots retook the lead with a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. Bledsoe went 5-for-8 for 66 yards on the march, including an 11-yard strike to Vincent Brisby for the touchdown.
The Dolphins tied it early in the fourth on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Mitchell to Mark Ingram, but the Patriots once again responded when Bledsoe hit Coates for a 42-yard gain that set up another Bahr field goal and a 20-17 lead.
Miami took its first lead on the ensuing possession when Terry Kirby swept around right end for 15 yards and a touchdown. During the drive, Patriots Hall of Famer Andre Tippett, playing in his last game, broke free and sacked Mitchell for a 10-yard loss, the 100th and final sack of the linebackers illustrious career in New England.
The back-and-forth pattern continued as the Patriots regained the lead with a 75-yard drive that finished with the second Bledsoe-to-Coates 11-yard hookup. New England took over with 3:40 to go and operated mostly in the hurry-up offense. Bledsoe went 7-for-9 for 68 yards using the no-huddle, which would become his trademark over the years.
But Miami wasnt through. Mitchell brought his offense back with 1:14 remaining and the ball on the Dolphins 34. A 23-yard completion to Ingram put the ball at the New England 6 with 25 seconds left and it appeared the Dolphins were poised for the win. But the Patriots forced three straight incompletions and Stoyanovich came on to boot a game-tying 24-yard field goal.
The action didnt stop in overtime. The Dolphins were forced to punt on the opening possession, but Bledsoe made his only mistake of the game on the Patriots first crack of the extra session. After an 8-yard completion to Coates, Corey Croom lost a yard on a sweep, setting up third-and-three from the Patriots 42. Bledsoe was being harassed by Jeff Cross and tried to force one over the middle to Ray Crittenden. The pass was intercepted by J.B. Brown and Miami was in business at their own 49.
But the Patriots defense rose to the challenge and forced a three-and-out, setting the stage for the game-winning drive. Of course, this being Foxboro Stadium and these being the Patriots, the drive was not without its share of calamity.
On second-and-10 from the Patriots 32, Bledsoe hit Brisby for a 10-yard pickup, but Brisby fumbled when he was hit by Stephen Braggs. Fortunately Leonard Russell was there and scooped up the ball and raced 22 yards to the Miami 36. After a Patriots timeout, Parcells and his offensive coordinator, Ray Perkins, agreed to take a shot for the win, and Bledsoe lofted a perfect 36-yard bomb to Michael Timpson for the touchdown.
Bledsoe was crushed by Marco Coleman as he released the ball, but the roar of the crowd told him the game was over. He finished the day 27-of-43 for 329 yards and four touchdowns.
Ive been in the playoffs and Ive been in championship games, Parcells said after the game. But Ive never been in a game more exciting than this one. The fans got their moneys worth.
When the game was over and the Patriots scored the most impressive of their five victories that season with the 33-27 overtime triumph, the fans remained and frolicked in a love-fest inside Foxboro Stadium for quite some time. They did so without knowledge of their awaiting fate, but after the performance the Patriots and Dolphins provided, they chose to simply recognize what they did know: the Patriots were on their way to better things whether it was in Foxborough or St. Louis.