January 5, 2011

1986: Patriots Take Advantage of Raider Turnovers, Win Divisional Playoff Game

The odds of the New England Patriots making it to the Super Bowl following the 1985 season were not good. They had finished 11-5 for third place in the AFC East, qualifying for the playoffs but needing to go on the road to advance. In the Wild Card round, the Patriots beat the team that had finished with the same record as theirs in the division, the New York Jets (awarded second place - and the higher wild card seeding - due to the conference record tiebreaker), but next had to take on the Los Angeles Raiders at the Memorial Coliseum on January 5, 1986.

The Patriots, guided by Head Coach Raymond Berry, had an opportunistic defense that led the AFC by generating 47 turnovers. LB Andre Tippett was the UPI Defensive Player of the Year in the AFC and LB Steve Nelson, CB Raymond Clayborn, and FS Fred Marion all were selected to the Pro Bowl. The offense ran the ball well, led by RB Craig James (pictured above; gained 1227 yards), and behind an offensive line anchored by G John Hannah and OT Brian Holloway. Quarterback was a question mark, however, as third-year QB Tony Eason, the club’s first draft choice in 1983, had gone down with a separated shoulder six games into the season and was replaced by 32-year-old veteran Steve Grogan. Grogan led the club to five straight wins but suffered a broken leg that put Eason back in the lineup.

The Raiders, coached by Tom Flores, were in the postseason for the fourth straight year and had been NFL champions in ’83. The defense was top-ranked in the conference and included consensus first-team All-Pros in DE Howie Long and CB Mike Haynes. RB Marcus Allen ran for 1759 yards and was the consensus NFL MVP. Sixth-year QB Marc Wilson took over for injured 38-year-old veteran Jim Plunkett. LA had won six straight to close out the regular season and finished atop the AFC West with a 12-4 record; in addition, they had beaten the Patriots earlier in the year.

New England benefited from an early turnover by the Raiders. The Patriots were forced to punt following the first possession of the game, and LA safety Fulton Walker muffed the catch. Safety Jim Bowman recovered for New England at the Los Angeles 21 and two plays later, Eason completed a 13-yard touchdown pass to TE Lin Dawson.

On LA’s ensuing possession, Wilson was intercepted by CB Ronnie Lippett (pictured at right), but after driving to the Raiders’ 41 the Patriots had to punt. The Raiders manufactured a break of their own as DE Greg Townsend blocked Rich Camarillo’s kick, giving them the ball at the New England 16. After a four-yard run by Allen, Wilson threw two incompletions and Chris Bahr kicked a 29-yard field goal. The score was 7-3 after one quarter of play.

Bahr missed a 44-yard field goal attempt early in the second quarter, but the Patriots were unable to move against LA’s defense. Following another New England punt and a 16-yard return by Walker, the Raiders drove 52 yards in six plays that culminated in Wilson tossing a 16-yard touchdown pass to WR Jessie Hester. The Raiders had a 10-7 lead, and they built upon it when, on the Patriots’ next play from scrimmage, RB Mosi Tatupu fumbled and Howie Long recovered for Los Angeles at the New England 19. Allen ran for an 11-yard touchdown and the score was now 17-7.

The Patriots responded with an 80-yard drive highlighted by Craig James running the ball for 27 yards and catching a pass for another 24 while Tatupu, making up for the earlier fumble, had a 22-yard run to the Los Angeles 15. James finished off the drive with a two-yard scoring run on third down out of the shotgun formation, and LA’s lead was cut to 17-14.

New England got the ball back as Lippett intercepted a Wilson pass at the Los Angeles 28 yard line. Four plays later, Tony Franklin kicked a 45-yard field goal to tie the score. However, with 1:40 left in the half, the Raiders commenced a 10-play drive to the New England 14, highlighted by a 17-yard run by Allen and 31-yard pass from Wilson to TE Todd Christensen. Bahr booted a 32-yard field goal with six seconds remaining on the clock, and the Raiders took a 20-17 lead into halftime.

Following an Allen fumble midway through the third quarter, the Patriots drove to the LA 14, where Franklin’s 32-yard field goal again tied the game at 20-20. In the biggest play of the game, Raiders CB Sam Seale fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Bowman recovered in the end zone for a New England touchdown.

There was still a quarter to play, but the Raiders were unable to advance beyond the New England 41 in their final three possessions of the game. The first ended in a punt, the second lasted just three plays as Wilson was intercepted by Marion, and the last drive fizzled out when Wilson threw incomplete on a fourth-and-17 play from his own 13 with a minute left to play. The Patriots held on to win, 27-20.

The Raiders outgained New England (287 yards to 254) and had the edge in first downs (17 to 15), but also gave up six turnovers, to two by the Patriots. New England turned those turnovers into 17 points, and that was the difference in the game.

Craig James was the star on offense for the Patriots, gaining 104 yards on 23 carries with a touchdown and also leading the receivers with three catches for 48 yards. Tony Eason completed just 7 of 14 passes for 117 yards and a TD, but threw no interceptions.

For the Raiders, Marcus Allen (pictured at left) ran for 121 yards on 22 attempts, including a score. But Marc Wilson was successful on only 11 of 27 passes for 135 yards and threw for one TD against three interceptions. Todd Christensen led the club’s receivers with 4 catches for 78 yards.

“It's unbelievable to come out here into Raider territory and come out with a win,” said Coach Raymond Berry. “It's a tribute to this club. It has true staying power and it never quits.”

“I'm not taking anything away from the Patriots, because they are a good football team,” said a disappointed Tom Flores, “but you just can't play in a game of this magnitude and make the mistakes we made today. We fumbled the ball, we threw interceptions, and those are the types of things that kill you.”

The Patriots went on to upset Miami for the AFC Championship, capping a dramatic run to the Super Bowl in which they won three playoff games on the road. But there was no storybook ending as they were demolished by the Chicago Bears for the league title.