Monday, December 5, 2016

The Thriller in the Blizzard

At Foxboro Stadium in the winter, Patriot fans didn't even consider sitting down during a game.

Instead, we stood resolute, pelted by the frigid winds, our faces frozen, our knees creaking in protest, losing sensation in our fingers and toes. The only thing more tortuous, in fact, would have been to take our seats.

They weren't "seats" at all, really--just long aluminum benches with numbers stamped on them every couple of feet--and when you left to use the restroom, you returned to find that the other bodies in your row had somehow expanded, swallowing up your little chunk of cold metal real estate, and leaving you to shoehorn your way back into place, as you vowed never to urinate at a football game again.

Those benches couldn't possibly have been any colder. I'm convinced they were designed for maximum pain by some sadistic nerd who lost his girlfriend to the high school quarterback, and then, bent on vengeance, swore that he would make football as agonizing for everyone else as it was for him. We might as well have been sitting on cast-iron commodes.

Somehow, it didn't help at all that the following season would bring us a brand new stadium right next to this one, and that, as soon as the final game was over, Foxboro Stadium would be torn down with all the violence it deserved. The fans weren't going to miss this old relic after it was gone; it would have been like feeling nostalgic for your toenail clippings. We were eager to leave this place behind and move on to our new home. But there was an important game to play first.

So it was for my brother and me as we passed through the gates of Foxboro Stadium on January 19, 2002, when the New England Patriots took on the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoff, in what has come to be known as The Snow Bowl.

The storm that Sunday was the only major snowfall of the season, starting a few hours before kickoff and ending a few hours after the final play. I always picture the game having taken place inside a snow globe, a perfectly encapsulated, snowy moment in an otherwise mild winter.

I couldn't help but lick my chops at the prospect of playing a warm-weather team, from clear across the country, right here in our New England backyard. Surely those California dudes would be no match for us as they flopped around on our frozen mess of a field. I figured we'd get a win, extending our improbable season for another week before coming back down to Earth. But that was the most I could ask for.

Fans all over the stadium were holding up "Back to the Bayou" signs (the Super Bowl would be held in New Orleans that year). All I could do was laugh. The Super Bowl was for powerhouses, strong teams with wily veterans who knew how to win big games--not for a bunch of scrappy young kids like the Patriots. We'd never make it that far. Why did people insist on setting themselves up for heartbreak?

We would never win a Super Bowl up here in Massachusetts. It just seemed wrong. Our team's home was a geographical region, as if our city and state were too small and insignificant to qualify on their own. Yes, we'd made it to the big game a couple of times before, first getting massacred by the Chicago Bears in the Foregone Conclusion Bowl of 1986, a game in which the Bears could've started kneeling down at the end of the first quarter and still won by 27, and then dropping another championship game 11 years later, a 35-21 loss to Brett Favre and the Packers. And it seemed that this 2001 team wouldn't even make it that far.

I had always thought that if the Pats had a chance, it was with Drew Bledsoe. Yes, they had gone a dismal 5-11 under Bledsoe the season before, and then lost the first two games of 2001 before Moe Lewis clobbered Bledsoe (and, as it turns out, nearly killed him) with a vicious sideline hit in week 2. By the time Bledsoe recovered and was cleared to play, Brady had carpe diem'd his way to the top QB spot in New England, a role he maintains to this very day, over 14 years later.

But of course, this was 2001, and no one yet had any idea of the historic future that lay before him. He was just some untested whodat from the University of Michigan, barely old enough to buy a beer. How could this kid handle playoff pressure? Yes, I felt Brady was the guy for the job, but he hadn't even played a full season yet. He wasn't ready! Alas, at least we had this game against the Raiders, and this game was a sure win.

No, it wasn't.

On their first possession, the Patriots gained 49 yards before the drive stalled; it took almost the rest of the first half for them to gain another 49. And forget about scoring--the Patriots only picked up two first downs in the half after their initial drive. Meanwhile, the Raiders managed to eke out a TD in the second quarter, and had a 7-0 lead at the break.

I don't know what Coach Belichick said to his troops at halftime, but whatever it was, it worked. The Pats took the second half kickoff and charged down the field, all the way to the Raider 5 yard line. But the drive stalled, and the Patriots were forced to settle for a 23-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal.

No, it wasn't a touchdown. But it finally, mercifully, erased that ugly "0" from the Patriots' side of the scoreboard.

Field goals aren't the worst thing in the world; all you have to do is follow them with a strong defensive stand, and you have a chance to build on your momentum. The one thing you don't want to do is allow points in return.

Sadly, that's exactly what they did.

On the ensuing possession, Oakland's Sebastian Janikowski kicked a 38-yard field goal, and after a quick New England three-and-out, he added a 45-yarder.

13-3, Oakland.

Under normal conditions, a 10-point lead is nothing in the NFL. But these were far from normal conditions. Men with leafblowers cleared the yard markers at every stoppage of play, but their work was getting more impossible by the minute. Players slipped and fell. Passes were dropped. Every tackle kicked up a plume of snow. They may as well have been playing on Mount Wachusett.

It was the fourth quarter now, and given the field conditions, and the short time remaining, field goals alone would not do. New England needed a touchdown.

What happened next is the stuff of Patriot Legend.

They began the drive at their own 33. On first down, Brady hit David Patten for 14 yards. Then Kevin Faulk for 7. Then Jermaine Wiggins for 3. Then Troy Brown for 8.

Wiggins for 4.

Patten for 11.

Wiggins for 4.

Patten for 6.

Wiggins for 4.

It was a prizefight now. The Patriots were Muhammed Ali and the Raiders were Joe Frazier. Wiggins was the jab and Patten was the right hook, and, like Frazier, Oakland had no answer.

Second and goal, Patriots, on the Oakland 6. See the results for yourself.

Brady was a perfect 9-for-9 on the drive, for 61 yards, and capped it off with the first rushing touchdown of his career.

There was 7:52 left in the game, and the Patriots owned the momentum. The whole stadium knew it. The whole planet knew it!

I wasn't cold anymore. I didn't care that I had been standing up for hours. It no longer mattered that my gloves had soaked through, or that every stitch of clothing on my body was saturated with melted snow, as if I had been dunked into an icy swimming pool. We were going to win the game after all! 

It took eight plays, and four minutes, but the defense held, and Oakland punted. The Patriots started on their own 20. First down: 12 yards to Wiggins. Here we go again! Paydirt, here we come!

...and then, three straight incompletions and a punt. 

But how? Brady was on fire just a few minutes ago! 

And, just like that, a tiny bit of dread began to creep in.

2:41 left. Now, the clock game. Three runs up the middle by Oakland, three timeouts by New England, and then a punt. 

2:06 left. The Patriots were out of timeouts. There wouldn't be time for another drive after this one. This was it.

New England started on their own 46. After a 7-yard pass to Faulk, and a 5-yard run by Brady, I witnessed something that will live in Patriots lore forever: The Tuck Rule Play.

Brady went back to throw, and was hit on his blindside by Charles Woodson. The ball popped out, and was recovered by Oakland. Game over.

How could this happen? Tom Brady was supposed to lead the Patriots to victory! It couldn't be. It just couldn't! And yet, the fans were heading dejectedly for the exits.

Suddenly, the full force of the cold hit me again, the howling wind, the furiously-falling snow, and the prospect of a long, frigid walk back to our car, followed by miles of gridlock on the drive home.

But then, a glimmer of hope.

I had brought a radio with me to the game that day. Gino Cappeletti announced that the play was under booth review, and then, ominously, that Brady's arm appeared to have been going forward when the ball came out. 

"Guys, guys!" I shouted to the fans around me. "They're saying his arm was going forward!"

And then this... 

As it turns out, Woodson hit Brady in the head on that play, which should've been a roughing the passer penalty, but it wasn't called. I wrote an article about it, in case you're interested. 

Feel free to share my article with anyone who says the Patriots "got lucky". Funny--seems to me that if you rough the passer and get away with it, you're the lucky one. But I digress.

Infused with new life, Brady immediately hit David Patten for 13 yards. Two incompletions followed, and then a field goal attempt from 45 yards out to tie it. 

It was a line drive kick, barely visible through the falling snow. It wasn't nearly high enough. Was it?

Yes! 13-13, and we were headed to overtime.

The Patriots won the toss and elected to receive, taking over on their own 34. And the heavyweight bout started again:

Brady to J.R. Redmond for 1.

Redmond for 20.

Wiggins for 2.

Redmond for 3. 

Wiggins for 6.

Wiggins for 4.

And then, for some odd reason, the Patriots attempted a run up the middle and lost a yard. On 3rd-and-7, Brady hit Troy Brown. For 3 yards.

Yep, 4th-and-3 from the Oakland 28. It would have been a 46-yard field goal, into the wind. Much too far. The Patriots had to go for it.

Brady to Patten for 6. First down!

Yet again, Brady was perfect on the drive, going 8-for-8 for 45 yards. But they weren't done yet.

Time for some body blows.

Antowain Smith up the middle for 4 yards.

Smith up the middle for 1.

Smith off right tackle for 8.

Smith up the middle for 2.

That put the Patriots inside the Raider 10, well within Vinatieri's range.

I believe you know the rest...

...and, I Believe You Know The Rest.