The 1996 postseason was perhaps the apex for the New England Patriots franchise. They hosted a pair of games in front of packed houses and came away with victories each time, thus earning a trip to Super Bowl XXXI.
The Patriots picked up the first home postseason win in team history and then followed that by hosting the AFC Championship for the only time. Of course, this wouldnt be Patriots history without some rather bizarre details involved with both, but the 96 postseason qualifies for the No. 2 spot on the Foxboro Stadium top 10 list simply based on the magnitude of the games.
In the Divisional Playoff against Pittsburgh on Jan. 5, 1997, a thick, soupy fog rolled through New England as unseasonably warm temperatures (it was 46 degrees at game time) enveloped the region. Fans vision in the first half was limited to roughly half the field until the fog finally subsided as the weather eventually turned colder after intermission.
Pregame ceremonies included a sizable fireworks display, which further contributed to the vision problems as a result of the smoke. When the game began, the Patriots defense stuffed the Steelers and New England took over at the Pittsburgh 47. On New Englands first play, Drew Bledsoe hit Terry Glenn with a bomb down the right sideline for a 53-yard gain to the Steelers 2.
Those fans sitting on the north side of the field barely saw Glenn lined up, but rather watched him appear as if out of thin air as he ran through the fog past the Steelers Rod Woodson in coverage. On the next play, Curtis Martin scored the first of his three touchdowns and the Patriots were never in trouble thereafter.
Bledsoe completed his first seven throws and went 10-for-11 for 110 yards in the first quarter, including a beautifully executed screen pass to Keith Byars for a 34-yard touchdown. Martin finished with 166 yards on just 19 carries and recorded the longest run in Patriots playoff history when he dashed 78 yards around the right end for a second quarter touchdown that upped the lead to 21-0.
That play represented the opposite of Glenns catch, as Martins run began in front of the north side fans and continued out of their sight. Only the reaction from the south side told them that Martin had made it all the way to the end zone.
It was really a pretty surreal atmosphere, kicker Adam Vinatieri said. The place was really rocking for that one, maybe even more so than the next week. Both of those games are probably my greatest memories in my time here with the Patriots.
New Englands Pro Bowl runner put the game away for good with a 23-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. The 28 points represent the second highest postseason total ever for the Patriots (31 against Miami in the 1985 AFC Championship).
But as well as the offense performed, the story of the day was defense. Defensive coordinator Al Groh and Bill Belichick, who was in charge of the secondary in his first year with the team, had their troops playing extremely well down the stretch in 96. They limited the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys to just 12 points in a hard-fought loss late in the season and they carried their momentum to the playoffs.
Pittsburgh came into Foxborough as the defending AFC champions and had Jerome Bettis, their battering ram running back, leading its offense. He was no match for the Patriots, picking up just 43 yards on 13 carries. The Steelers passing game wasnt much better. Starter Mike Tomczak was intercepted twice before a young Kordell Stewart entered the picture. Stewart failed to complete a single throw in his 10 attempts.
The outcome was never in question and Patriots fans prepared to return the following week for an unexpected home game for the AFC championship. That was because Jacksonville, in just its second year of existence, went into Denver a day earlier and knocked off the Broncos. Not only had the Patriots rolled to one of their most impressive wins in franchise history, they now had the chance to host a game for all the marbles.
While the cement palace geared up for the big game, it did not go off without a hitch. A power outage early in the second quarter caused an 11-minute delay. That led to jokes that Owner Robert Kraft, who was attempting to get clearance to build a new stadium in Boston at the time, took advantage of his opportunity on the grand stage and planned the whole thing.
It was probably the most electrical atmosphere Ive been involved in for a football game, linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. The fans were going crazy, the lights ... so much electricity in the stands that it caused the lights to go out. Thats how hyped it was.
The Jaguars came in with young Mark Brunell throwing and running his team to big yardage and point totals in postseason wins over Buffalo and Denver. Again, the Patriots defensive game plan was flawless. Belichick, who later would use similar tactics to defuse scramblers like Doug Flutie while with the Jets, decided Brunell was most dangerous when outside the pocket.
With that in mind, he employed Willie McGinest and Chris Slade as his outside contain guys. Whenever Brunell tried to get around them, they forced him back inside. Although Brunell was sacked just once, he wasnt nearly as effective as he had been and completed only 20-of-38 passes for 190 yards. He also tossed a pair of interceptions and for the second straight playoff game the Patriots didnt allow a touchdown.
The offense wasnt as sharp as it had been for virtually the entire 1996 season, however. The Patriots capitalized on an early break when Jags punter Bryan Barker mishandled a high snap and New England took over at the Jacksonville 4. Martin plunged in from the 1 two plays later for an early 7-0 lead.
From there, points were pretty tough to come by. Both offenses moved the ball at times, but defense dominated when the ball got near scoring position. Vinatieri and Jacksonvilles Mike Hollis booted a pair a field goals each and the Patriots had a tenuous 13-6 lead as the game moved to the fourth quarter.
Jacksonville appeared to have momentum late when it marched deep into Patriots territory at the 5 with 3:43 to go. But when Brunell looked into the end zone to Derek Brown for the tying touchdown, free safety Willie Clay stepped in and intercepted his pass to thwart the rally. It was one of four Jags turnovers in the game.
The Patriots were not quite on their way to New Orleans just yet. The offense failed to run out the clock and Brunell got one final chance, taking over at his 42 with 2:36 left. He gave the ball to James Stewart on an inside handoff, but Slade wasnt fooled and made the stop.
Stewart fumbled on the play and Otis Smith, who was in his first tour of duty with the Patriots, grabbed the ball in mid-air and raced 47 yards for a touchdown that set off a wild celebration at Foxboro Stadium.
It was an incredible feeling seeing all those screaming fans and just running toward them, Smith said after the game. I was thinking that we were probably going to the Super Bowl.
Even though the ending in New Orleans wasnt what the Patriots hoped for, these two games represented the best in Foxboro Stadium history. Depending on the outcome of the 2001 season, maybe Belichick and his boys can rewrite the final chapter and close the place in style with another trip to Bourbon Street.