The 1996 New England Patriots Week 4 #theweekthatwas by @profwyatttaylor

 

az_ty_law_1996
Image courtesy of sportslogos.net

 

The New England Patriots began their work week on September 16, 1996 with a record of 1-2.  However, the mood around the team was far more positive than that record might suggest.  A dominating 31-0 win the day before will do that for you.  There was praise for offensive coordinator Ray Perkins’ play-calling, something that had been nowhere to be found prior to the Arizona Cardinals’ arrival in New England.  The praise was well-deserved.  The Patriots had pulled out all the stops against the Cardinals, employing flea-flickers, halfback option passes, and double reverses.

The Patriots’ playmakers came up big against the Cardinals as well.  Drew Bledsoe completed 21 of 35 passes for 221 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.  Curtis Martin rushed for 92 yards and a touchdown, while also catching five balls for 33 yards and two more touchdowns.  Ben Coates was in on the act as well, catching six balls on ten targets for 61 yards and a touchdown.[1]

Afterwards, even Bill Parcells, notoriously stingy in regards to praise for his players, seemed impressed with his team’s effort.  “We were pretty good in every phase of the game,” he said. “If we play like this, we can be competitive with anybody. If we play the way we did the first week, we won’t be competitive with anybody.”[2]

Owner Bob Kraft was equally pleased.  “Our fans deserve this,” said Kraft. “I think our season began today, and this is when you should start judging our team.”[3]

The Jacksonville Jaguars, New England’s opponent in week 4, had a 1-2 record as well, but had arrived there in quite a different manner.  After a 24-9 upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener, the Jaguars fell to the Houston Oilers in a 34-27 shootout.  They then suffered a much more painful defeat at the hands of the Oakland Raiders.

The Raiders, who had lost eight straight contests dating back to the 1995 season, defeated the Jaguars 17-3 in a game that featured one of the most ignominious plays of the 1996 season.  With his team trailing 10-3 late in the fourth quarter, Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell drove his team deep into Raider territory before losing the football.  Raiders’ 320-pound defensive tackle Jerry Ball caught the loose ball and rumbled 66 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.[4]

To make matters worse, the Jaguars couldn’t even take a proper shower after the game before flying back across the country to Jacksonville.  The game was the Raiders’ regular-season debut in the newly renovated Oakland Coliseum, and there were multiple issues within the stadium.  Game clocks and scoreboards didn’t function, and water issues plagued the public restrooms and locker-room showers.[5]

“Ten minutes before the game, we were told there were no game clocks operating,” said Jaguars head coach Tom Coughlin. “On the scoreboard.  On the field.  Nowhere.  Then, after the game, we got to the locker room and there’s no water.  All of us have to take a sponge bath in a washroom sink, and then get on the plane and fly all the way home.”[6]

Despite the nightmare his team experienced in Oakland, Coughlin was quick to point out that his team had a chance to win both of their recent losses.  “We were coming down the field near the end of the game against Houston with a chance to win, and we threw an interception,” he said.  “We were coming down the field at the end of the game in Oakland Sunday. We’ve got first down on their 29 looking to go into the end zone, and we throw another interception.”[7]

So, as the clock struck one o’clock at Foxboro Stadium on Sunday, September 22, 1996, the Jacksonville Jaguars hoped to find a way to win a football game.  The New England Patriots, on the other hand, hoped to maintain the momentum they had established in their rout of the Arizona Cardinals.  The Patriots did just that with a hot start against the Jags, scoring on their first two drives en route to a 9-0 first quarter lead.

Despite Curtis Martin having a tough time finding running room, Drew Bledsoe managed to lead the Patriots down to the Jacksonville 5-yard line.  He then threw a touchdown pass to tight end Ben Coates.  Adam Vinatieri missed the extra point, but came back to kick a 23-yard field goal on New England’s next possession.  After Jimmy Hitchcock intercepted a Mark Brunell pass, Bledsoe connected with Curtis Martin for 11 yards and Terry Glenn for 15 yards, which took the Pats back down to the Jaguars’ 5-yard line.  The drive stalled, but Vinatieri’s field goal made it 9-0.

The second quarter was more of the same, as two Vinatieri field goals sandwiched around a 4-yard touchdown run by Martin made it 22-0 New England.  At that point the Patriots had outscored the Cardinals and Jaguars 53-0 over nearly six quarters of football.  The key word here, however, is nearly.

With five seconds left in the first half, the Jaguars faced a fourth and 13 near midfield.  Jacksonville was ready to punt, but a New England timeout gave them time to reconsider.  The Jaguars’ offense lobbied Coughlin for the opportunity to attempt a Hail Mary.  “No question they wanted to go for it,” Coughlin said. “I just didn’t want there to be any time left.”[8]

The Jaguars’ offense came out of the timeout and lined up to take one last shot at the end zone.  Brunell rolled right and heaved a pass toward the end zone.  A mass of players went up after the ball, which fell toward the ground before bouncing off the feet of Patriot safety Willie Clay.[9]  Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith was in the right place at the right time, snagging the ball for a 51-yard touchdown that seemed to erase any and all momentum New England had established over the majority of the half.

In a second half dominated by the Jaguars, Mark Brunell completed 15 out of 23 pass attempts for a whopping 315 yards.  The Jaguars quarterback ended up with 432 yards passing for the day, nearly doubling Drew Bledsoe’s 255 yards.  Brunell also had three touchdown passes that covered 51, 41, and 61 yards.  And he nearly saved his best for last.

The Jaguars outscored the Patriots 18-3 in the second half, but as the game drew to a close the teams were tied at 25.  Jaguars’ wide receiver Willie Jackson had a premonition, one he shared with teammate Jimmy Smith. “I told him we were going to get another Hail Mary, and I was going to catch this one,” Jackson said.[10]

With three seconds left to play, Jacksonville was indeed in position to attempt another Hail Mary.  Brunell rolled out, just as he had at the end of the first half, and threw the ball nearly 60 yards toward the end zone.  Jackson, just as he had prophesized, came down with the ball.  However, Jackson fell just short of the goal line and the teams ended up tied at the end of regulation[11].

Jacksonville would not touch the ball again.  The Patriots took the overtime kickoff and drove the ball deep inside Jaguars territory.  Adam Vinatieri kicked a 40-yard, game-winning field goal, and the Patriots escaped with a 28-25 win.  New England would spend the next few days wondering how they let Jacksonville back in a game they had started out dominating.  The Jaguars, on the other hand, headed home to try and figure out how to turn their season around.  It was not the last time the teams would face each other in the 1996 season.

Jaguars V Patriots
12 Jan 1997: Defensive back Willie McGinest of the New England Patriots finds himself between two Jacksonville Jaguars, quarterback Mark Brunell #8 and defensive lineman Tony Boselli # 71 during the AFC Championship game played at the Foxboro Stadium in

That’s it for this week.  Next week, the 2-2 Patriots head to Baltimore to take on the Ravens.  See you then . . .

[1] “Arizona Cardinals at New England Patriots,” Pro Football Reference, http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199609150nwe.htm, accessed October 10, 2016.

[2] Bob Ryan, “Play calling made this win fun for all,” The Boston Globe, September 16, 1996, accessed October 11, 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tribune News Service, “Raiders 17, Jaguars 3,” September 16, 1996, accessed October 11, 2016.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Will McDonough, “Coughlin trying for a balancing act with Jaguars,” The Boston Globe, September 18, 1996, accessed October 12, 2016.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Allen Lessels, “Without question, Jaguars made it a big day for big plays,” The Boston Globe, September 23, 1996, accessed October 13, 2016.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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