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Top 10 Most Memorable Games in Foxboro: #5

Despite a list of achievements that filled 25 pages in the 1998 Patriots media guide, Drew Bledsoe never seemed to completely win over the region’s loyal football fanatics.

Critics argued that as a West Coast guy Bledsoe lacked the fire and toughness to truly succeed and be embraced on the tougher-minded East Coast. His low-key demeanor, they said, prevented him from being able to perform at his best when it really mattered most — when the game was on the line.

All of that changed following a magical seven-day span in the middle of the 1998 season, when Bledsoe led not one but two unforgettable, improbable last-second comebacks at Foxboro Stadium to defeat the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills.

Oh, did we mention that he accomplished both with a broken finger on his throwing hand?

For the purposes of this list, both games will be treated as one and rank fifth on the top 10 list of Foxboro Stadium’s greatest moments.

The Patriots season got off to a fast start in Year Two of the Pete Carroll era. After dropping the opener at Denver, New England rattled off four straight wins and was atop the AFC East. But the Patriots suffered some critical injuries and dropped four of their next five and suddenly just making the postseason seemed like an unrealistic goal.

The 5-5 Patriots licked their wounds and returned home for a Monday night tilt with the Dolphins on Nov. 23. It was the team’s third appearance on Monday night that season and the first two didn’t work out too well. In addition to the 27-21 loss at Denver, New England also dropped a 24-14 decision at home to the hated Jets to start the losing streak.

Now the 7-3 Dolphins came to town looking to bury the two-time defending division champs once and for all. And for most of the night it looked like they’d accomplish that goal, surging ahead on Karim Abdul-Jabbar’s 4-yard touchdown run with 3:22 to go.

That gave the Dolphins a 23-19 lead and appeared to be the final dagger for the Patriots. Now the Patriots season was on the brink and the Patriots stood 80 yards away from victory. Bledsoe got his team some momentum with a 17-yard completion to Tony Simmons on third-and-11 from his own 19. He followed that with a 10-yarder to Ben Coates on third-and-10 just before the two-minute warning.

But then Bledsoe decided to increase the level of difficulty on the final drive. On the next play, Bledsoe broke his index finger following through on an incomplete pass when his hand hit Shane Burton’s helmet. His finger went numb and he was forced to take a timeout despite the fact the clock was already stopped.

He trotted to the sideline and made several throws to see if he could accurately throw. Although the results weren’t good, he continued on. Bledsoe gamely hit Shawn Jefferson for 14 yards on fourth-and-10 from the Patriots 46 with 1:48 to go, but soon faced another fourth down, this one with just :43 left, and again hooked up with Jefferson for 12 yards down to the Dolphins 25 and took his final timeout with :34 to go.

On the next play, Bledsoe recognized a Miami blitz, stood firmly in the pocket, and floated a perfect pass to a wide-open Jefferson in the end zone for the 26-23 win.

“I remember it being just a heart-breaking loss for us,” said linebacker Larry Izzo, who was on the Miami sideline at the time as a member of the Dolphins. “It was a great, intense Monday night game and Drew came back and killed us. He had the broken finger and somehow managed to still do that to us. It was just very frustrating and shows the kind of player he is.”

With the Patriots playoff hopes alive but still in need of a respirator, Bledsoe put several thousand New England fans on actual respirators the following week by outdoing himself against the Bills. The script was virtually the same: The Bills took a late lead on an Andre Reed touchdown and looked like they would walk out of Foxborough with a win.

But Bledsoe marched the Patriots 82 yards in the final 1:52 to rescue his team once again. This time, he needed a little more help. With no timeouts at his disposal, Bledsoe hurriedly worked the ball downfield. He faced a fourth-and-nine at the Buffalo 36 with just 11 seconds left when he got his first break. His pass to Jefferson on the Bills sideline barely gave the Patriots a first down. There were questions first as to whether Jefferson made the catch in bounds, and then whether he had the first down. After a brief consultation, the officials ruled yes on both counts.

But with the ball now at the Bills 26 and just six seconds left, Bledsoe’s task still was formidable. Enter break No. 2. His pass to Terry Glenn in the left corner of the end zone bounced off his receiver’s chest, but Henry Jones was flagged for pass interference, putting the ball at the 1 with no time on the clock. Although there was clearly an infraction on the play, such calls aren’t generally made in those situations.

Nonetheless the Patriots made good on their final chance, as Bledsoe rolled to his right and lofted a perfect spiral to Coates along the back line of the end zone for the winning touchdown.

With his team’s fortunes resting on his shoulders, Bledsoe responded by throwing for all of the Patriots 162 yards and two touchdowns on the final drives. Since those dramatic back-to-back victories, Bledsoe erased a great deal of the criticism that used to float in his direction.

He still deals with his share of critics, especially today with the emergence of Tom Brady in his absence. But the toughness questions were buried once and for all as a result of those two heroic performances.

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