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Top 10 Most Memorable Games in Foxboro: #6

In the world of Patriots history, there are varying degrees of wackiness. There was Head Coach Clive Rush almost electrocuting himself at a press conference. There were fans almost doing the same when they tore down the goal posts after a playoff-clinching win over Cincinnati in 1985.

But the Patriots took their bumbling act to a new level in 1978. In the midst of one of the franchise’s most successful seasons ever, New England somehow managed to put an enormous circus tent over Schaefer Stadium as the team prepared for its first-ever home playoff game on New Year’s Eve. The Houston Oilers drubbed the Patriots, 31-14, but the events surrounding that day more than what happened on the field earn the game the No. 6 spot on this list.

The Patriots captured the AFC East title for the first time in their history after compiling an 11-5 record. They established an NFL record with 3,165 yards rushing, a mark that still stands today. With five Pro Bowlers on their roster, the Patriots were considered one of the most talented teams in the NFL.

So how could a team with such talent and promise resemble the laughing stock that was on display as the postseason got underway? Well, as is most often the case with this team, it wasn’t easy.

Chuck Fairbanks, the Patriots head coach and general manager, came to New England in 1973 after a successful career at Oklahoma. He brought almost instant credibility to a floundering franchise badly in need of direction. With great drafting and a shrewd trade (Jim Plunkett to San Francisco for three No. 1 picks), Fairbanks had his team in the playoffs by 1976 and among the league’s best by ’78.

But having Fairbanks remain in charge to lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl would have been too easy for this franchise. Instead, he grew tired of ownership’s constant penny-pinching ways and looked for a way out. While his position was understandable to most, the manner in which he chose to leave was not.

As the 1978 season moved into its final month, the Patriots were positioning themselves for a division title. A hard-fought 17-10 loss at Dallas on Dec. 3 left New England with a 10-4 record and needing just one victory to clinch the AFC East. With the Patriots preparing to take on the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 10, Fairbanks got a visit from a pair of University of Colorado football boosters, Jack Vickers and Robert Six.

Vickers and Six showed up in Foxborough on Dec. 8 and offered Fairbanks a seven-year contract worth in the neighborhood of $250,000, substantially more than the $150,000 he was making in New England. Fairbanks did not inform Patriots Owner Billy Sullivan of this meeting until 10 days later, after his team defeated the Bills (No. 10 on the list) and earned a first-round bye and home-field advantage.

On Dec. 18, the day Fairbanks told Sullivan he would be leaving for Colorado for the 1979 season, the Patriots were set to take on the Dolphins in Miami on “Monday Night Football.” Upon hearing the news, Sullivan was predictably livid and refused to allow Fairbanks to coach his team, turning that job over to Ron Erhardt and Hank Bullough, the offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively.

Patriots center Pete Brock remembers the shock of Fairbanks’ announcement. “It was like some sort of curse hit us. We fought to get back to the playoffs after a disappointing season in ’77 and three hours before a Monday night game the whole thing blows up in our faces. Usually we’re eating a pregame meal or attending a chapel service at that time, but instead Chuck announced to us he was leaving.”

The Patriots were blown out, 23-3, and Fairbanks was suspended for four days before Sullivan allowed him to return to coach the team in the playoffs. To put the situation in perspective, think what the 1997 season would have been like if Robert Kraft insisted on Bill Parcells remaining as Patriots coach despite the fact he wanted to leave for the Jets.

Clearly, that scenario wouldn’t have worked for either party and it didn’t work for Fairbanks in 1978, either.

“We felt there was no reason for us to lose to Houston, especially playing the game at home,” quarterback Steve Grogan said. “But we had some distractions heading into that game that turned out to be too much to overcome. The whole thing with Chuck was just bizarre. He was gone one day and then back the next and nobody really knew what was going to happen with that.

“We also had some injuries that hurt us. Harold [Jackson] had his toe broken at the end of the Buffalo game when a fan stepped on his foot during the postgame celebration and I had a bad knee. I remember not playing very well that day and the game turned into a nightmare. It was one of the most disappointing games of my career because it was all such a waste.”

Grogan rushed 81 times for 539 yards in 1978, both career highs. But with his troublesome knee keeping him in the pocket, he tucked the ball under just once against the Oilers for a 16-yard pickup in the second quarter. Relegated to strict passing duty, Grogan did not deliver, hitting just 3-of-12 passes for 38 yards with two interceptions.

The knee eventually forced him to the sideline and backup Tom Owen came on in relief. But before Owen stepped on the field, Houston already held a commanding 21-0 lead and simply turned to their bruising rookie, Earl Campbell, who melted the second half clock on his way to 118 yards on 27 punishing carries.

Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini fired three touchdown passes in the second quarter to build the Oilers lead. The key play was the first when he took advantage of a rare mistake by Patriots All-Pro cornerback Mike Haynes, who fell while trying to cover Houston’s speedy Ken Burrough down the sideline. Pastorini saw this and hit Burrough in stride for a 71-yard touchdown to open the floodgates.

The Patriots trailed 24-0 before finally showing signs of life. Running back Andy Johnson hit Jackson for a 24-yard touchdown on a halfback option pass and tight end Russ Francis (eight catches, 101 yards) caught a 24-yarder from Owen to cut the lead to 10 early in the fourth quarter.

New England got a chance to inch closer, but Greg Bingham intercepted Owen’s pass and returned it to the Patriots 18. Three plays later, Campbell sealed the game with a 2-yard run to close the scoring.

“It was really just a lost opportunity,” Brock said. “The turmoil with the coaches and all of that just killed us. Houston had no business being on the field with us and they made us look silly.”

Fairbanks eventually won his freedom more than three months later when he and the Patriots agreed to a settlement that allowed him to coach Colorado. Erhardt took over the reins full-time in 1979 and his three-year tenure was a disaster, as the Patriots failed to make the playoffs despite possessing some of the best talent the league had to offer.

Instead of enjoying a series of successful postseason runs, Patriots fans were left with a slew of what-could-have-beens.

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