January 19, 2010

2002: Patriots Defeat Raiders in Snow With Help From Tuck Rule

It was a snowy day in Foxboro, Massachusetts on January 19, 2002 as the Patriots hosted the Oakland Raiders in an AFC Divisional playoff game at Foxboro Stadium. New England, under Head Coach Bill Belichick, had been the surprise team of the second half of the 2001 season. A 5-11 team in 2000, they had lost their first two games in ‘01 and as late as the tenth week were just 5-5 when they put together a six-game winning streak to finish the regular season at 11-5. It was good enough to win the AFC East over Miami, thanks to a better division record. More surprising had been the play of QB Tom Brady, an obscure second-year backup who had been thrust into the starting role after the established veteran, Drew Bledsoe, was injured in the second week. Showing great composure, Brady set a team record by completing 63.9 percent of his passes.

Their opponents, the Oakland Raiders, were coached by Jon Gruden and had won the AFC West with a 10-6 tally. 36-year-old QB Rich Gannon had continued to improve with age, passing for 3828 yards with 27 touchdowns and just 9 interceptions as he led the conference in overall passing. All-purpose RB Charlie Garner ran for 839 yards and caught 72 passes for another 578. Veteran wide receivers Tim Brown (91 catches, 1165 yards) and Jerry Rice (83 for 1139) combined skill and savvy. LB Greg Biekert and cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Eric Allen were prominent performers on the defense.

With the driving snowstorm hindering visibility and members of the grounds crew regularly clearing the snow at the yard lines, the defenses dominated the first half. Oakland finally got the first score of the game as Gannon passed to WR James Jett for a 13-yard TD early in the second quarter. The score remained 7-0 at the half.

It looked as though the veteran Raiders had finished off the upstart Patriots in the third quarter. Adam Vinatieri got New England on the board with a 23-yard field goal on the first possession of the second half, but Oakland came right back with a three-pointer from 38 yards by Sebastian Janikowski. Janikowski added another field goal, from 45 yards, later in the period and the Raiders led by a seemingly-comfortable 13-3 margin going into the fourth quarter.

With 12:29 to play, the Patriots offense came alive as Brady commenced a drive that included nine consecutive pass completions and ended with his running for a 9-yard touchdown on a quarterback draw. The teams exchanged punts after their next possessions, and with 2:24 left, the Raiders had the ball on their own 44 with a third-and-one situation. In a critical defensive play, RB Zack Crockett was stopped for no gain and Oakland had to punt.

New England got the ball back on their 46 with just over two minutes remaining and no timeouts. They reached the Oakland 42, but in the key play of the game, it appeared that the Patriots season was over when Brady was blindsided by the blitzing Woodson, who hit his arm and caused an apparent fumble that was recovered by Biekert. However, the ruling was overturned upon review by the replay official – it was determined that while Brady had pulled the ball down, it was part of a continuous forward motion and was thus an incomplete pass, not a fumble.

While still at the low end of a 13-10 score, the Patriots retained possession and managed a 42-yard, line-drive field goal by Vinatieri with 27 seconds left in regulation. All tied up at 13-13, the game proceeded into overtime.

Playing into the wind in the “sudden death” period, the Patriots took the kickoff and moved the ball down the field, with Brady completing all eight of his passes. The key play came on a fourth-and-four situation with the ball at the Oakland 28 as New England decided to go for a first down rather than attempt a field goal into the snow and wind at that distance. The gamble worked - Brady passed to WR David Patten for six yards, and shortly thereafter Vinatieri booted a 23-yard field goal (pictured at bottom) to win the game, 16-13.

While Tom Brady had his shaky moments, he rose to the occasion when necessary and completed 32 of 52 passes for 312 yards with an interception. Patten had 107 yards on 8 catches, while TE Jermaine Wiggins led with 10 receptions, for 68 yards (he caught just 14 passes during the season). RB Antowain Smith (pictured at left) had 65 hard-earned yards on 20 rushes.

Rich Gannon connected on 17 of 31 passes for 159 yards and a TD. Charlie Garner ran 17 times for 64 yards and gained another 32 yards on four pass receptions. It was a testament to both the weather and New England’s tenacious defense that Jerry Rice led the Oakland receivers with just 48 yards on 4 catches; Tim Brown had the most catches with 5, for 42 yards.

There was much comment about the reversal of the fumble call on Brady. The interpretation of the so-called tuck rule had saved New England’s season. Referee Walt Coleman, who viewed the replay and reversed the call, stated afterward that, “When I got over to the replay monitor and looked at it, [it] was obvious that his arm was coming forward. He was trying to tuck the ball and they just knocked it out of his hand. His hand was coming forward, which makes it an incomplete pass.”

Said Brady, “I knew I was throwing the ball…I’m glad they ruled it the way they did.” Oakland’s Coach Gruden stated, with obvious irritation, “It was obvious. I thought it was a fumble, but the officials ruled otherwise.” Rice summed up the feeling of the defeated Raiders when he said, “I feel like we had one taken away from us.”

In any event, the Patriots made the most of their opportunities with the game on the line. The young quarterback gained recognition for the first of what would be many outstanding clutch performances (as Jon Gruden also said, “Say what you want, (Brady) made some great plays when he had to.”). For Adam Vinatieri, it was the first of several games in which he made important kicks in key situations on his way to becoming the NFL’s all-time leader in postseason field goals. New England had made the final season – and last game – at Foxboro Stadium a memorable one.

The Patriots defeated Pittsburgh for the AFC Championship and won the Super Bowl over the highly-favored St. Louis Rams. Oakland went on to win the AFC title in ’02, losing decisively in the Super Bowl to Tampa Bay, the team Coach Gruden moved to following the loss at Foxboro. It was a last gasp for the veteran team - the Raiders fell into serious decline thereafter.