Sometimes the circumstances surrounding a game are too great for the action itself to live up to the hype. While that seemed to be the case on Sept. 14, 1997, the Patriots and Jets put on a show that night so entertaining it actually made the pregame billing look woefully insufficient. And given the fact that Bill Parcells first return to Foxborough was trumpeted far and wide in these parts, thats no small statement.
Tuna Bowl I, as it was dubbed from the start, had a little bit of everything. There was Parcells, the erstwhile Patriots coach who took New England to the Super Bowl a year earlier. There were the jilted players he left behind. There was a national television, prime-time audience, with TNTs cameras focusing on Parcells every move, as well as those of his replacement with the Patriots, Pete Carroll. Oh, and Carroll also coached the Jets just three years earlier.
There were more plots and subplots than any afternoon soap opera could dream up. And for one of those rare instances in sports, the action on the field exceeded all of that. The Patriots 27-24 overtime victory made for wonderful theatre and qualifies for the fourth spot on Foxboro Stadiums top 10 list of all-time greatest games.
The 2-0 Patriots had the look of a future champion early in the 1997 season. Their loss to the Packers in the Super Bowl just nine months earlier did little to damage the psyche of the young Patriots. They had a swagger about them as the season began and were out to prove that their talent not the coaching of Parcells was responsible for their trip to The Big One.
After dismantling the Chargers and Colts in the first two games by a combined 72-13 score, the Patriots were heavy favorites against the 1-1 Jets, who entered the game winners in just two of their previous 18 games. New York blew out Seattle 41-3 in the opener but then was upended by the Bills, 28-22, in Week Two.
Surely this spunky group couldnt hang with its much more talented opponent, especially with the Patriots so eager to disprove the Parcells factor. Hang with turned out to be an understatement. As it turned out, the Jets should have left Foxborough with a shocking victory, and if not for a miracle blocked field goal by Mike Jones, that would have been the case.
But thats getting ahead of ourselves. What made this game truly special wasnt just a magical finish. It was four-plus quarters of non-stop entertainment. The sky-high Patriots opened the game with an impressive touchdown drive that culminated with a 32-yard touchdown pass from Bledsoe to tight end Ben Coates.
At the time Bledsoes public often complained about the quarterbacks lack of fire on the field. Not on this night. After the touchdown Bledsoe jumped around like a schoolboy. He spent the rest of the evening showing outward emotion hed never before displayed in Foxborough. At one point, after racing toward an official to complain about a possible pass interference call, he got in safety Victor Greens face and earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
But despite the quick start, it was a game Bledsoe would like to forget. The pumped-up version some of his fans clamored for was largely ineffective and left everyone in agreement at games end: The methodical, low-key Bledsoe was the most effective quarterback for the Patriots.
The tempo of the game never seemed to settle down. The Patriots early attempt for the knockout blow did little to deter the Jets. Quarterback Neil ODonnells 3-yard run knotted the score before Curtis Martin regained the lead for the Patriots with a 2-yard run late in the first quarter.
The Jets defense slowly began to neutralize Bledsoe and kept New England off the board in the second quarter. Using a wide array of coverages that often confused the Patriots quarterback, defensive coordinator Bill Belichick showed the first signs of developing his reputation as a Bledsoe killer.
Contrary to popular opinion, he didnt do it with the blitz, but rather sat back in zones and waited for Bledsoe to make mistakes. Those would come in the second half, but the Jets first established themselves with Halls 27-yard field goal to get within 14-10. A Richie Anderson fumble inside the Patriots 10 in the final minute of the first half prevented New York from taking a lead into the locker room, but 30 minutes was enough for everyone to realize the Jets werent going anywhere.
On the first possession of the second half, Bledsoes first mistake also represented the Patriots first deficit of the young season. Bledsoe looked for Shawn Jefferson on the left sideline, but linebacker Mo Lewis dropped into a deep zone and intercepted the pass and returned it 43 yards for a touchdown. Adam Vinatieri immediately evened things with a 33-yard field goal on the Patriots next possession, but the game remained tied at 17 heading into the final quarter.
Despite defying the odds with a remarkable performance in an underdog role, it appeared the Jets would fall short after Bledsoe hooked up with backup tight end Lovett Purnell for a 10-yard touchdown and a 24-17 lead.
With 2:17 remaining, the Jets took over at their own 17 with no timeouts remaining. Given the fact that Carrolls defense was in ODonnells face all night, sacking him seven times, chances for the tying touchdown drive seemed slim. But the Patriots defense got sloppy, committing a pair of drive-extending penalties, and the Jets had life.
With 27 seconds left, ODonnell floated a pass to the left corner of the end zone toward Keyshawn Johnson as cornerback Steve Israel slipped in an effort to get back into position. Johnson made a terrific diving catch for the tying touchdown and the game seemed headed for overtime.
That is, until Derrick Cullors fumbled the ensuing kick at his own 18, and Chad Cascaddens recovery set the Jets up for the potential win. But Jones got penetration and Halls kick was low, allowing the veteran defensive end to make the block and give his team another chance.
The Patriots werent out of the woods yet. Bledsoe tossed his second interception on the first possession in overtime and the Jets once again were in business at the Patriots 48. But this time the defense did the job, forcing a three-and-out.
Martin wouldnt allow his team to fall victim to the upset-minded Jets. He finished the night with career highs for carries (40) and yards (199) and accounted for 48 of the 62 yards on the game-winning drive. Vinatieris 34-yarder at 8:03 of overtime gave the Patriots the win.
But it was one of those occasions where the winners didnt really feel that way and the losers left with their heads held high. The sloppy Patriots showed warning signs of things that eventually led to their undoing in 97 while the Jets learned they could match up with anyone and eventually learned how to win, narrowly missing the playoffs with a 9-7 record.
And fans on both sides were simply spent after watching each team seemingly having the game won on multiple occasions. Five Tuna Bowls followed, and each had some merit of its own, but none of the sequels came close to the drama of the original.