The Patriots were not always a dynasty, it may be hard to believe for fans under thirty years old, but the franchise had never reached either the Super Bowl or an AFC Championship Game before 1984; their last playoff appearance had occurred during strike-torn 1982 with midseason coaching change during the 1984 season. Although nothing seemed indicative of future history making, in 1985, the Patriots managed to make their mark by becoming the first team ever reaching the Super Bowl via three road playoff wins!
The greatest Patriots team at that time had to be the 1976 Patriots, the only team to beat the Oakland Raiders, who would go on to be the World Champions that year with a 13-1 record. The Patriots beat the Raiders 48-17 early in that season. In Oakland for the Divisional playoff rematch, the Patriots were a bad call away from the AFC Championship game. Sugar Bear Hamilton was called for a roughing of the passer penalty, which extended the Raiders’ eventual game-winning drive.
Head Coach Raymond Berry had first made a name for himself as Johnny Unitas’ top receiver during their time together on the Baltimore Colts. Yet, running the football would define this Patriot team at its most critical moments.
John Hannah was among the most outstanding offensive linemen ever and still earned first-team All-NFL honors at 34. At the same time, Brian Holloway made the Pro Bowl also, clearing a path for Craig James and Tony Collins; James ran over 1,200, making the Pro Bowl, while Collins caught 52 passes for 549 more).
Andre Tippett provided the Patriots’ 3-4 defensive scheme with the necessary edge at outside linebacker, playing with disruptive force rivaled only by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, recording 16 1/2 sacks, and earning first-team All-NFL honors. Outside linebacker, Don Blackmon recorded 8 1/2 more sacks.
Raymond Clayborn excelled at locking down coverage as part of an aggressive defensive scheme. He earned a Pro Bowl selection while intercepting six passes himself and helping Fred Marion collect seven interceptions en route to an incredible season, both acquiring Pro Bowl selections.
Collectively, the defense ranked sixth in the NFL. Coupled with their ability to run the football, Quarterback posed a trickier issue as Tony Eason was initially named starter, with veteran Steve Grogan waiting in the wings to retake his old job from Eason, the former first round draft pick..
Whoever played quarterback was limited in their receiving targets. Irving Fryar, the top overall pick from the 1984 draft and Pro Bowl selection, made an impactful statement by being notable both punt returner as well as a reciever – 39 catches for 670 yards at respectable numbers was an accurate description for him as opposed to Stanley Morgan who managed 760. Both had the speed to keep opponents guessing.
New England opened their season at home against an unimpressive Packers squad. QB Eason went 21/28 for 241 yards before James took over on a 65-yard touchdown run. Even with four lost fumbles, New England built a 26-6 lead by the fourth quarter before holding on for a 26-20 victory.
James made yet another impressive play for the Patriots by scoring on a 90-yard touchdown reception against the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, however, this play came with the Patriots trailing 20-0 in the fourth quarter and only gave them hope as their offense managed to rush for 27 yards in this 20-7 loss despite James’ big play. But to be fair to Chicago, their 1985 Bears had begun making similar plays against many opponents already and not just Patriots!
Next came an uninspiring trip to Buffalo, where New England trailed 10-7 until Fryar’s 85-yard punt return sealed an eventual 17-14 win. Back home against the Los Angeles Raiders, they played poorly again: turning the ball over four times, Eason only completing 13/36 passes, and losing 35-20. The Patriots would get their revenge later on in the playoffs.
A loss to Cleveland followed as Eason went 20/38 for 340 yards while Morgan caught six passes totalling 140 yards.
However, this time, the Patriots were outplayed in the trenches. Offense did not create holes, while the defense failed to pressure quarterback Bernie Kosar enough, leading them to lose 24-20 loss and dropping their record to 2-3 overall.
The Bills visited Foxborough for a pivotal game in their season. After Eason threw two interceptions, Grogan came in and went 15/19 for 282 yards with multiple connections with Fryar for touchdowns despite an uneven start by his team – despite which the Patriots still managed to come away victorious 14-3.
Grogan came up big in the fourth quarter against the Bills, throwing for one touchdown while running for one himself to lead them to a 20-13 victory. New England followed this up by quickly dispatching Tampa Bay 32-14 thanks to an overwhelming 197-79 rush advantage and Grogan going 14/21 for 237 yards performance from Grogan.
Any doubt about the Patriots was erased when the defending AFC champion Miami Dolphins, led by Dan Marino, came into town, with wind and rain making life miserable for both teams. Trailing 13-3 heading into the fourth quarter, New England used its ground game to win 203-91, and Grogan, not Marino, was critical in turning things around with two touchdown passes as well as running for one score for a= hard fought 17-13 win.
The Colts were now 6-3; the Patriots made quick work of a subpar Colts team with a 34-15 home victory. Receivers Fryar and Morgan came through big time.
Grogan continued his fourth-quarter magic at Seattle. Although Seattle had made the playoffs each of the last two years, this year they slipped down to being a non-contender, and New England trailed 13-7 before Grogan struck again – first hitting James on a 23-yard touchdown pass before connecting with Fryar for another.
On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Grogan’s magic came crashing down hard: he broke his leg against the Jets at Meadowlands in a battle for first place. Eason was called upon, while the defense kept New York at bay through red zone stops that forced them into field goals instead of touchdowns. Eason would eventually heat up and finish 23/34 for 210 yards en route to forcing overtime at 13-13 before losing and ending the win streak; Eason now had to rebuild everyone’s trust heading into December.
Three teams were locked in a three-team race in the AFC East: Patriots, Dolphins and Jets were each 8-4 and in pursuit of one wild card spot; as two wild cards remained available for consideration, either Broncos/Raiders AFC West race runners-up could potentially enter this mix as well.
New England made quick work of Indianapolis (before 2002, they had also been an AFC East member). Although not always pretty, with fourteen Patriot penalties allowing the inferior team back into it; Eason went 20/29 for 293 yards and three touchdowns to lead a 38-31 win and give everyone hope; thanks to the Jets losing on Thanksgiving day, the Pats and Dolphins both moved into a three-way tie for first.
New England defeated Detroit with their traditional ground game and was led by James. New England led Detroit in rush yardage 216-105 for a 23-6 win – both AFC East rivals won, yet most significantly, the Raiders beat Broncos for AFC West leadership!
New England found this to their advantage–they held the tiebreaker over Denver while not Los Angeles, providing a one-game advantage against them in their division and adding some stability in terms of wild card race odds.
Monday Night football arrived in Miami for its penultimate season match on November 12th. Both teams took to the field knowing that first place was up for grabs as the Jets had already lost to the Bears. For Patriots at that period, going into Miami Orange Bowl was like visiting Yankee Stadium – it never ends well and that Monday Night wasn’t any different.
Eason struggled with three interceptions as New England fell behind 27-13 yet managed 14 completions for 217 yards, cutting their deficit down to 27-20 with just under four minutes left in regulation. When they recovered a fumbled punt near the Dolphin 15 and ran it back for the tying touchdown at their 15-yard line, it looked as though their Orange Bowl luck might finally turn around; unfortunately, it did not; Miami pulled ahead 30-27 on a late field goal kick.
New England entered their season finale against the Cincinnati Bengals with their playoff fate potentially in any number of directions. They could win the AFC East and vault as high as #2 seed; however, that would require both the Dolphins and Jets losing. But New England could also miss the postseason altogether, and Denver’s win against Seattle on Saturday confirmed that Sunday would indeed be a make-or-break game at Gillette Stadium for their fans at home.
At least two games on Saturday had an impactful effect on the Patriots-Bengals matchup: When the Jets defeated the Browns, any faint hopes New England may have had of winning the AFC East were dashed; then the Steelers’ loss to the Giants effectively gave Cleveland control of AFC Central due to tiebreakers among Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati – leaving Cincinnati no reason to compete at all.
New England was unquestionably the superior team on this day, as James amassed 142 yards on the ground to lead New England to an early 20-6 lead at halftime after Eason found Morgan with a 50-yard touchdown pass. Although their lead was cut to 20-16 in the fourth quarter, the New England ground game quickly rebounded by amassing 281 rushing yards while backup Robert Weathers added a 42-yard touchdown run that sealed their 34-23 win – they had secured themselves back into playoff contention!
Round Three began with the Jets as they looked even, yet New York held the tiebreaker advantage, making them at-home favorites and placing New England as three-point underdogs.
On a damp December afternoon in Jersey, wind gusts blew at 20mph. The Patriots opened with an early field goal. When the Jets took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, New England responded with another field goal, and Eason hit Morgan for a 36-yard touchdown pass, giving New England a 13-7 advantage at halftime.
New England kicked off the second half with a deep drive that bogged down, yet still extended their lead by two possessions, 16-7. Eason continued his impressive performance by throwing for 12/16 and no interceptions for 179 yards. In comparison, the Jets turned it over four times, with linebacker Johnny Rembert returning a fumble 15 yards for a touchdown return by New England linebackers.
At 23-7 and still early in the third quarter, an era before two-point conversion made this game a three-possession contest. When Ken O’Brien, one of the league’s premier quarterbacks in 1985, left due to concussion symptoms, the game was all but decided; eventually, it ended 26-14 in favor of the New York Jets.
New England traveled west for their divisional round game to face Los Angeles as oddsmakers favored them by 5 1/2 points in an afternoon clash on Sunday afternoon.
Eason scored first with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Lin Dawson before the Raiders responded by scoring 17 straight points, including an 11-yard touchdown run from MVP running back Marcus Allen. But in an exciting second quarter, James scored an unorthodox short touchdown run before the Patriots added two field goals to keep New England within striking distance – though Eason still got one last field goal before halftime ended, giving the Raiders an edge of 20-17.
New England didn’t stop Allen on the ground – where he ran for 121 yards – but they did prevent his inclusion in the passing game; he caught only three passes for eight yards. Raider quarterback Marc Wilson struggled with consistency issues similar to Eason’s, and with no security blanket given, Wilson threw three interceptions.
The Patriots also recovered four fumbles, the most significant being after a third-quarter field goal tied it 20-20 and an ensuing kickoff was fumbled, leading defensive back Jim Bowman to track it down and score for an unlikely 27-20 lead. Thanks to New England getting James going 104 yards on offense and their defense playing well enough, no serious threat by the Raiders emerged to threaten them again.
Round Three was back at its House of Horrors – the Orange Bowl on a rainy late Sunday afternoon, where they faced off against their longtime foe, the Patriots. And for another week in a row, they were listed as 5-1/2 point underdogs.
New England was frustrated when their drive inside the 10-yard line ended up only with a field goal, an unfavorable result against Miami’s high-powered offense. Marino quickly responded with an impressive touchdown pass, but Eason quickly responded by flipping two short touchdown passes – to Collins and tight end Derrick Ramsey to make the score 17-7 and extend their lead in this matchup.
Before the half was over, Miami experienced its red-zone problems: an incomplete touchdown pass was followed by an unsuccessful field goal attempt that led to a suprising 10-point Patriots lead at the half.
Eason wasn’t precisely stellar–he would finish the game 10/21 for 71 yards; but had Fantasy Leagues existed back then, Eason would have had an outstanding day; his touchdown pass from four yards connected with Weathers late in the third quarter to make it 24-7.
Miami had been in this same position last week against Cleveland as they trailed 21-3 as home favorites, only for Marino to come through and save that game at home as a favorite. When New England fumbled a punt and set up an instant Dolphin touchdown in the fourth quarter, wailing was heard across all six states of New England.
Just as the Red Sox found success at Yankee Stadium, so too would the Patriots eventually solve Orange Bowl Stadium. Led by the three-pronged running attack of James, Weathers, and Collins, their combined yardage total was an overwhelming 255-68 margin in ground yardage! Marino made two costly interceptions while trying to play from behind with no running game available to him the Dolphins were done.
New England responded quickly and decisively, answering Miami’s touchdown with another of their own for an easy 31-14 victory and their inaugural Super Bowl appearance.
At New Orleans, another matchup with the Bears was on deck. Once again, no one expected New England to emerge victorious…and this time around, they met an opponent that proved too powerful for them to overcome.
Chicago was historically great on defense, holding New England to just seven rushing yards, leaving Eason rattled and completing just one of six passes before being pulled from the Super Bowl. A popular misconception among fans then held that this loss caused irreparable psychological harm; in reality, he led this franchise back into contention, leading them to win an AFC East title again by 1986. The truth was that he was an average quarterback who was drafted way too high.
Chicago’s greatness has long since been acknowledged, so the legacy of the 1985 New England Patriots remains positive. They advanced further than anyone expected and exceeded any expectation; though they never won a championship themselves, this team provided much-needed comfort to sports fans in New England during a period when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady had yet to come along.
What if Steve Grogan had started? They would have lost 46-13; the Bears were just better.
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