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Top 10 Most Memorable Games at Foxboro: #9

In the first in-stallment in this series, several examples were given to illustrate just how wacky and unpredictable the football has been in the 30-year history of Schaefer/Sulli-van/Foxboro Stadium. With coaches being electrocuted during press conferences and fans doing the same in the midst of postgame celebrations, the Patriots are a franchise that has very rarely opted to do things the easy or conventional way.

Game No. 9 on the list of the all-time most memorable games in stadium history was perhaps the greatest example of the Patriots refusing to take the easy road to victory. The record book shows they defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars 28-25 in overtime on Sept. 22, 1996. But that score doesn’t even begin to tell the story of a game with more plot twists than a trashy drug store novel.

New England was hoping to close out the month of September with a .500 record after dropping a pair of division games to open the season, and then rebounding with a resounding 31-0 win over Arizona in the home opener the previous week.

At the start of the game, the talk was more of back-to-back shutouts than of potential overtimes. In the first half, the Patriots dominated the young and inexperienced Jaguars, who were entering just their second year of play and came into Foxboro Stadium with an identical 1-2 record. Head Coach Tom Coughlin, unlike his fellow expansion coach Dom Capers in Carolina, chose to build his team through the draft and had a roster full of untapped potential.

Although his team would eventually mature quickly and make a return trip to Foxboro Stadium for the AFC Championship (check back for No. 2 on the list), Coughlin could only watch in horror as his Jags made a season’s worth of mistakes. They committed 17 penalties for 148 yards and dug a seemingly insurmountable 22-0 hole.

But despite early appearances, the win didn’t come easy.

“I remember how crazy that game was,” said kicker Adam Vinatieri, who played a major role in the victory with his first-ever game-winning field goal. “It was a game when you looked on paper and thought we probably should have won by 21 points. But it ended up coming down to overtime.”

Patriots fans should have known from the start that the win wouldn’t come easy when David Meggett fumbled the opening kickoff to give the Jags instant momentum. But any bad omens were quickly erased when the defense forced a Jags punt and the offense wasted no time asserting itself with an impressive 12-play, 67-yard touchdown drive that ended with Bledsoe’s sixth straight completion — a 5-yard toss to tight end Ben Coates.

But another foreshadowing of the wackiness that would follow was soon on display when Vinatieri’s extra point was blocked, leaving the Patriots advantage at 6-0.

When New England fashioned four more scoring drives (three Vinatieri field goals and a Curtis Martin touchdown run) in the first half and the Jags offense sputtered its way to just 71 total yards, no one in the stadium remembered (or cared) about Meggett’s fumble or Vinatieri’s blocked extra point.

That changed as the first half came to an end. In one of those moves that would be discussed ad nauseum on sports talk radio today but was brushed under the rug at the time because Bill Parcells rarely drew criticism, the Patriots called timeout with the Jags facing a fourth-and-13 from their own 49 with just five seconds to go before intermission.

With a few extra seconds to ponder his next move, Coughlin decided to remove punter Bryan Barker, who was on the field before the timeout, and sent quarterback Mark Brunell and the offense back to try a Hail Mary. Prayer No. 1 (there would be plenty more for the Jags) was answered when Brunell’s pass was deflected twice before falling toward the ground in the end zone.

Patriots safety Willie Clay, lying in the end zone, inadvertently kicked it back in the air where Jimmy Smith grabbed it near the back of the end zone and the Jags suddenly had life, trailing just 22-7.

The Patriots had specific measures in place to avoid the disasters that hit them at least three times in the Jaguars game. Parcells used the standard complement of extra defensive backs in his secondary, in addition to an unlikely player — defensive end Willie McGinest. Parcells reasoned that McGinest’s superior size, speed and athleticism made him a perfect candidate to act as the lone “jumper” while the others “boxed out” potential receivers.

“We put Willie back there for a big body because he’s tall and can jump up over everybody,” said cornerback Ty Law, who was involved in more than his share of Hail Mary passes dating back to his college days at Michigan.

“But at the same time he’s probably not as coordinated as the rest of us. He had on these knee braces and big pads and that made it difficult for him to run 50 yards down field and get himself into position. But he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He didn’t try to catch the ball; he just tried to knock it away. Things just didn’t work out for us.”

Coughlin decided to stick with that offensive approach in the second half. The Jags cut the lead to 22-14 on their opening second-half possession when Brunell tossed another bomb, this one to Andre Rison, for a 41-yard touchdown. Rison and cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock leaped for the ball in the end zone, but Rison was able to tear it away and the Jags had another prayer answered and were very much back in the game.

Vinatieri’s fourth field goal restored the lead to nine, but Brunell’s bomb squad returned on the following play. Jacksonville needed just 26 seconds to pull within three when Rison split defenders Ricky Reynolds and Willie Clay, who both were in perfect position to intercept Brunell’s pass, on a slant route and raced 61 yards for another improbable touchdown.

Brunell’s two-point conversion run moved the 59,446 in attendance well past the concerned stage as the fourth quarter opened with the Patriots nursing a 25-22 lead.

The fireworks of the first three quarters slowed considerably. A 27-yard Mike Hollis field goal was the only scoring and the teams headed for overtime. But Brunell had one last Hail Mary answered on the final play of regulation. Fortunately for the Patriots, they were equally aided by higher forces and escaped. The Jags Willie Jackson had possession of a 58-yard pass from Brunell, but was trapped under a pile of bodies (including McGinest’s) at the 1-yard line.

The Patriots won the toss in overtime and Bledsoe sandwiched completions to Shawn Jefferson (6 yards) and Terry Glenn (32 yards) around a 12-yard pass interference penalty on the Jags to put Vinatieri in position to rescue his new teammates.

Nowadays Vinatieri is a proven kicker with a solid track record with the game on the line. He has eight game-winning kicks in 10 career attempts and most Patriots fans would feel very safe having a game in his hands. But that was not the case in Week Four of the 1996 season.

Parcells let veteran Matt Bahr go during the preseason and the move was an unpopular one among fans. When Vinatieri missed three of his first six attempts, including two in a disappointing 17-10 defeat at Buffalo in Week Two, the rookie was working on a short leash.

“The pressure was on,” Vinatieri remembered with a smile. “The week before the Jacksonville game Bill said it was kind of a day-to-day situation for me. When he says that you know you don’t have any room for error. So I’m real happy I had a nice game and got the monkey off my back. It gave me a little bit of breathing room.”

Vinatieri lined up for a 40-yard field goal but was forced to wait when the Jags called timeout in an attempt to ice him. He later said it was the best thing that could have happened because it afforded him time to replace the many divots in the Foxboro Stadium turf and allowed him to secure his footing for the biggest kick of his young career.

“I had an opportunity to kick a bunch of field goals and I think I kicked a 40-yarder in overtime to win it,” Vinatieri said. “It was my first game-winning field goal so that was something that was very exciting for me.”

The kick also sent the Patriots into the bye with an uplifting win rather than a potentially damaging defeat. New England went on to win five of its next six games en route to an 11-5 finish and an appearance in Super Bowl XXXI.

But not without saying their prayers against Jacksonville.

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