The 1994 Patriots season served as a wakeup call to football fans all over New England. Even though Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe had arrived the previous year, the success that everyone was waiting for didnt follow until more than halfway through the following season. At that point, the 94 campaign was in ruins and their quarterback didnt seem to have any answers why.
If 1994 indeed sounded the alarm, the first nine games represented the snooze button. The Patriots won just three of those nine and wasted some memorable efforts by Bledsoe in the process. New England scored 35 points in each of its first two games only to lose both.
By Week 10, the offense seemed to give in to the pressures of having to single-handedly win games. After a three-game winning streak put the Patriots on the plus side at 3-2, Bledsoe & Co. mustered just 43 points during a brutal four-game losing stretch that appeared to end their season. The 22-year-old quarterback was as much responsible for that slide as anyone by tossing seven interceptions in his previous two outings, and the postseason seemed out of the question.
Enter the red-hot Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 13 for a date at Foxboro Stadium. It was a game that turned the teams fortunes and one that serves as the defining moment in Bledsoes career. New Englands 26-20 overtime win touched off a seven-game winning streak that propelled the team to the playoffs for the first time since 1986 and ranks third on Foxboro Stadiums all-time top 10 greatest games.
The game was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was Bledsoes performance. He set NFL records for attempts (70) and completions (45) while establishing a team mark for yards with 426. Despite the 70 attempts, he was not sacked a single time. He threw three touchdown passes but none of his 70 throws was intercepted.
In the second half, he completed 37-of-53 for 354 yards and all three of his touchdowns. Of the 51 plays New England ran in the second half, Bledsoe threw on 47 of them, including all 27 in the fourth quarter.
Such drastic measures were necessary because of an absolutely putrid performance in the first half that put the Patriots in a 20-0 hole. Only a late 67-yard drive for the field goal in the final 58 seconds avoided a first half shutout and New England went to the locker room down 20-3.
We went in at halftime and if I remember we took a pretty good tongue lashing from Parcells about the way we played in the first half, Bledsoe remembered. But we came out and walking out the tunnel to start the second half he said, All right, you got it. We are going to go two-minute the whole second half.
While they certainly heard plenty from Parcells, it was defensive coordinator Al Groh that really stirred things up. He was incensed about his units play and had run out of logical adjustments to make. He grabbed a shovel and held it above his head while pleading with his young team, asking them when they were going to dig in and fight back. How long were they going to let people push them around?
Groh brought the shovel to the bench area and slammed it into the turf along the sideline. It stayed there for the next seven weeks and served as a reminder to his troops to continue to dig in and fight, as they did all the way into the playoffs.
With the offense operating without a huddle for the final 30 minutes and the defense suddenly finding ways to stop Warren Moon, Qadry Ismail and Terry Allen, the Patriots rally was underway. A 31-yard touchdown pass from Bledsoe to Ray Crittenden early in the third quarter got them within striking distance at 20-10.
The defense continued to hold and Bledsoe worked his late-game magic. He finished an 11-play, 87-yard drive with a 5-yard flip to Leroy Thompson to make it 20-17 with just 2:27 left in the game. The defense responded with a three-and-out and suddenly the 58,000-plus in attendance could hardly believe their eyes the Patriots had the ball with a chance to tie or win.
The tying drive almost never got started. The Vikings blitzed Bledsoe on each of the first three plays, causing hurried throws that fell incomplete. On fourth-and-10 from his own 39 with 1:38 to play, Bledsoe found Vincent Brisby for a 25-yard gain to the Vikings 36. He hit Brisby on the next two plays for 8 yards each time. Back-to-back completions to Michael Timpson gave the Patriots first-and-goal at the Vikings 5 with 27 seconds remaining.
After spiking the ball to stop the clock on first down, Bledsoes pass went off Crittenden on second down and he missed Kevin Turner on the following play. Matt Bahr came on to boot a 23-yard field goal to send the game to overtime.
The Patriots won the toss and stayed in hurry-up mode. Bledsoe connected with Crittenden, Thompson, Ben Coates twice and Thompson again to move 42 yards to the Vikings 25. Two Marion Butts runs and a Bledsoe sneak set up first-and-10 at the Minnesota 14.
Conventional wisdom called for another Butts dive to set up a winning Bahr field goal, but Bledsoe had other ideas. He opted instead to loft a pass to the left corner of the end zone toward fullback Kevin Turner, who was as surprised as the Vikings that the ball was headed his way.
I didnt think Drew would be throwing the ball to me, he said after the game. I turned my shoulder and I happened to see the ball. He threw it there and I just managed to stay in bounds.
I remember throwing the pass to Kevin Turner in the corner of the end zone and the crowd went crazy, Bledsoe recalled. It was a great, great feeling and then that win kind of catapulted us for the rest of the season.
With the improbable victory, the Patriots not only won the game but they resurrected a lost season. By winning their last seven in the regular season, New England earned a wild card berth against Cleveland, where they would eventually lose to the Bill Belichick-led Browns.
But for one half of football, Bledsoe and the Patriots were truly magical.