The New England Patriots were 6-5 and fighting to stay in the playoff hunt as they hosted the division-rival Buffalo Bills on November 29, 1998. To add to New England’s concerns, QB Drew Bledsoe (pictured above) was playing with a splint on his throwing hand due to a broken finger suffered the previous week, when he had still managed to toss a late scoring pass to pull out a win. Prior to that, Head Coach Pete Carroll’s team had lost four of five games, but the offense was helped by the return from injury of WR Terry Glenn.
Buffalo, coached by Wade Phillips, was 7-4 and had beaten the Patriots at home two weeks earlier. Diminutive QB Doug Flutie, former Boston College star and CFL legend, replaced Rob Johnson, the young quarterback the team had swung a deal with Jacksonville to obtain, with good results. WR Eric Moulds was a big-play talent across from 34-year-old WR Andre Reed and, with RB Thurman Thomas entering the twilight of his great career, RB Antowain Smith emerged as a productive starter. DE Bruce Smith was still a key player on the defensive line, along with NT Ted Washington.
There were 58,304 fans in attendance at Foxboro Stadium. Buffalo had the first possession and Doug Flutie completed his first three passes, but the drive stalled at the New England 45 and the Bills punted. They got the ball back in short order when CB Thomas Smith intercepted a pass by Drew Bledsoe at the Buffalo 12. Flutie completed a throw to Eric Moulds for 33 yards and the long series finally ended at the New England 17 where the Bills came up empty when Steve Christie missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.
The teams exchanged punts as the game headed into the second quarter. The Patriots then put together a 66-yard drive in eight plays. Bledsoe threw to Terry Glenn for 15 and 33 yards and TE Ben Coates for 12 to reach the Buffalo nine. A pass interference penalty moved the ball to the one, and after two carries by RB Robert Edwards netted a loss of a yard, Bledsoe passed to him for a two-yard touchdown. Adam Vinatieri added the extra point for the 7-0 lead.
Once again the Bills had to punt following their next possession, and once again the Patriots drove to a score. This time it took them seven plays to advance 53 yards, having gotten a 30-yard punt return from CB Chris Canty to give them good starting field position. Bledsoe completed five passes, with gains of 12 yards to Glenn, 13 to Coates, and finally a 12-yard TD throw to RB Derrick Cullors. Vinatieri kicked the point after to expand the New England lead to 14-0.
Down by two touchdowns, the Bills got a break on the next series when the Patriots were flagged for pass interference on a third-and-10 play that picked up 26 yards. Antowain Smith followed up with three runs that totaled 22 yards to the New England 38. A Flutie pass and another run by Smith picked up another ten yards, but that was it and Christie came on to kick a 34-yard field goal.
With 1:16 remaining in the first half, the Patriots responded with Bledsoe completing three straight short passes. However, a third-down sack forced a punt and the Bills, starting from their 37 with the clock now down to 18 seconds, got a 55-yard gain on a pass from Flutie to WR Kevin Williams. Christie kicked a 26-yard field goal on the last play before halftime and the score stood at 14-6 at the game’s midpoint.
Following a punt by the Patriots to finish off the first series of the third quarter, Buffalo struck quickly when Flutie (pictured at left) connected with Moulds for an 84-yard touchdown. The pass for a two-point conversion failed, but the visitors were now only two points behind.
Short Bledsoe passes and the running of Edwards moved the Patriots down the field on the next possession, and Vinatieri booted a 44-yard field goal to expand New England’s lead to 17-12. But the Bills came back with another score of their own on a series in which Flutie completed passes to Andre Reed for 23 yards and Moulds for 17. With a second-and-goal at the four, they were unable to reach the end zone, but Christie kicked a 22-yard field goal to again narrow the margin to two points at 17-15.
As the contest entered the fourth quarter, the Patriots again had to punt and Buffalo put together a long, penalty-filled drive of 67 yards. A defensive holding penalty converted a third-and-16 situation and an illegal-use-of-hands call turned a third-and-four play into a first down. Flutie completed four passes, one to Williams to convert yet another third and long that picked up 22 yards, although an apparent 23-yard completion to Reed was called back for holding. Finally, Flutie threw to Reed for a touchdown from four yards out and, while the two-point conversion attempt again failed, the Bills were in front by 21-17.
The Patriots came up empty on their next series when Vinatieri missed a 47-yard field goal attempt. After Buffalo’s next possession resulted in a punt just after the two-minute warning, New England started off at its 18 and had no remaining timeouts. Bledsoe completed four of five passes, two of them to Coates, as the Patriots advanced to the Buffalo 37. However, the drive stalled there until, on fourth-and-nine, a pass lofted toward Glenn in the end zone was incomplete but Buffalo was called for pass interference. The ball was moved to the one, much to the fury of the Bills. With no time left on the clock, Bledsoe connected with Coates for a touchdown and, with the angry Bills having already departed for the locker room, Vinatieri ran for an unopposed two-point conversion rather than kicking. The Patriots came away with a dramatic 25-21 win.
Buffalo had a sizable lead in total yards (428 to 259) and time of possession (34:01 to 24:59), although New England had the edge in first downs (24 to 23). The Bills also recorded four sacks, to one by the Patriots, and New England suffered the only turnover. But Buffalo was penalized 12 times, at a cost of 107 yards, which in the end proved fatal, while the Patriots drew 9 flags for 80 yards.
Drew Bledsoe completed 28 of 43 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns while giving up one interception. Ben Coates (pictured at right) had 10 catches for 70 yards and the game-winning TD and Terry Glenn gained 104 yards on 8 receptions. Robert Edwards led New England in rushing with 40 yards on 13 carries.
For the Bills, Doug Flutie was successful on 21 of 39 throws for 339 yards and two TDs and no interceptions. He also ran for 30 yards on five carries. Eric Moulds caught 8 passes for 177 yards and the long touchdown. Kevin Williams contributed 74 yards on his four receptions and Andre Reed accounted for 53 yards and a TD on his four. Antowain Smith rushed for 58 yards on 21 attempts.
“We were robbed,” said SS Henry Jones, who was called for the crucial pass interference penalty at the end. “Terry Glenn jumped for the ball, but no one even grabbed him.”
“Well, [the officials] gave them the game, they might as well give them the extra point,” added Coach Phillips, also making reference to the unopposed two-point conversion at the end.
“He [Jones] wasn’t playing the ball, but he did make contact with the receiver,” countered referee Walt Coleman. “That’s pass interference.”
The win tied the Patriots with the Bills as they remained in the playoff mix, but they split their last two contests, including a loss to the division-winning Jets in the finale, to finish fourth in the AFC East at 9-7. It was still enough to make it in to the postseason with the last Wild Card spot and they lost to Jacksonville in the first round. Buffalo was third with a 10-6 record and lost to Miami, the second-place team, in the Wild Card playoff.
Drew Bledsoe, who missed the last two games and the playoff loss due to injury, ended up passing for 3633 yards and 20 touchdowns. Ben Coates led the team with 67 pass receptions, for 668 yards (10.0 avg.) and six TDs. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the fifth straight year.
Doug Flutie and Eric Moulds were also selected to the Pro Bowl. The 36-year-old Flutie threw for 2711 yards and 20 touchdowns and ran for another 248 yards while the team went 7-3 with him as the starting quarterback. Moulds (pictured below) averaged 20.4 yards on his 67 catches for an AFC-leading 1368 yards with nine TDs.