1997 New England Patriots: An AFC East Title In Transition

The 1997 New England Patriots were in an odd dynamic. On the one hand, they were coming off a Super Bowl appearance in 1996, had a rising star at quarterback in Drew Bledsoe and a future Hall of Fame running back in Curtis Martin. On the other hand, they were in transition. Bill Parcells, who had built the Super Bowl team, left to coach the archrival New York Jets. A then-unknown Pete Carroll got his first head coaching opportunity. While the Pats didn’t return to the Super Bowl, they did win another AFC East title.

Bledsoe was now in his fifth season and his production numbers told you he was in his prime. His 28 touchdown passes, 60 percent completion rate and 7.1 yards-per-attempt were all in the top 10 among starting quarterbacks. Bledsoe’s bugaboo was always mistakes though, and being intercepted on 2.9 percent of his attempts ranked only 21st in the league.

Martin racked up over 1,100 yards rushing running behind a line led by Pro Bowl left tackle Bruce Armstrong. Martin was also versatile and his 41 catches were the third-most on the team.

Bledsoe’s prime target was veteran Pro Bowl tight end Ben Coates, who caught 66 balls for over 700 yards. Shawn Jefferson’s 54 catches for 841 yards made him the top downfield threat. Troy Brown was another wideout who could stretch the field, catching 41 balls at nearly fifteen yards a pop.

This was Brown’s first year as a significant contributor and his emergence lessened the blow of Terry Glenn’s injury problems. Glenn’s ability to make big plays gave the Patriot a new dimension in his rookie year of ’96. But he missed a couple games early and a midseason injury cost Glenn much of the season.

All in all, while the offense wasn’t quite as good as it had been in the Super Bowl year, the ’97 Patriots attack still ranked eighth in the NFL in points scored.

The defense had been anywhere from poor to mediocre in recent years. In spite of Willie McGinest, an outside linebacker/defensive end combo, missing five games and generally having an unproductive year rushing the passer, the Patriot defense actually made significant strides forward. Chris Slade stepped up with nine sacks from his linebacker position. Henry Thomas, a free agent pickup at defensive tackle was a difference-maker with seven sacks.

Carroll’s defense didn’t have any Pro Bowl players, but he had two young guys in his secondary who were slowly coming into their own. Corner Ty Law and strong safety Lawyer Milloy would one day be a key part of the first Super Bowl team coached by Bill Belichick a few years down the line. The Patriot defense joined the offense in ranking eighth in the league.

The season had an early August 31 start and New England hosted what would be a bad San Diego Chargers team. Bledsoe threw touchdown passes to Coates, Glenn, and running backs Keith Byars and Sam Gash. The quarterback finished the day 26/39 for 340 yards with no interceptions. The result was an easy 41-7 win.

New England went on to play another bad team in a road trip to Indianapolis. This time Bledsoe threw TD passes to Jefferson, Martin, Brown and wide receiver Vincent Brisby. The quarterback finished the day 15/25 for 267 yards and no interceptions. The result was an easy 31-6 win.

The schedule might have been easy, but Bledsoe had thrown his eight touchdown passes to eight different receivers and played mistake-free football in the process. He was in rhythm for a highly anticipated Sunday Night showdown with Parcell’s Jets.

Parcells inherited a team that had gone 1-15 the year before, but this season’s Jets would be different and would get right in the thick of the AFC East race. The national audience got an advance taste of that tonight in what was a terrific football game. Bledsoe threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Coates. But the QB also threw a Pick-6. The biggest difference was Martin—he got the ball 40 times and gained almost 200 yards. The Patriots needed overtime, but they survived the Jets 27-24.

Another poor opponent came to Foxboro in the Chicago Bears. Bledsoe carved them up to the tune of 24/37 for 301 yards. Brown caught six of those passes for 124 yards. The defense got five sacks, two from Thomas and two from Larry Whigham coming from his secondary spot. The Pats won 31-3.

New England rolled into their bye week at 4-0. The schedule had been exceptionally soft, but they had certainly met all reasonable expectations.

A road trip to Denver was up next. The Broncos had been the top seed in the previous year’s AFC playoffs and their upset loss in the divisional round cleared the way for New England to reach the Super Bowl. John Elway’s team had their eye on redemption and they would ultimately get it in January. The Patriots were overmatched on the Monday Night stage.

Bledsoe threw an early Pick-6. The defense was pounded for 192 yards on the ground. New England fell behind early and got blown out in the third quarter of a 34-13 loss.

Buffalo had been the AFC’s best team in the first part of the 1990s, but the ’97 campaign saw them slip below .500. The Pats took apart the Bills in Foxboro, outrushing Buffalo 139-34. Bledsoe threw an early 20-yard TD pass to Coates and New England coasted home to a 33-6 win.

That set up a rematch with Parcells and the Jets, this one in the Meadowlands. With Brown catching five balls for 125 yards, the Patriots took a 19-10 lead in the third quarter. But backup Jet quarterback Glenn Foley beat them with two touchdown drives and New England suffered a 24-19 loss.

Another chance at the Monday Night stage awaited when Brett Favre brought his Green Bay Packers into Foxboro. It was a rematch of the previous year’s Super Bowl. And it went poorly. The Pats were pounded up front, outrushed 144-69, and Bledsoe threw three interceptions. New England lost 28-10.

The season was at the halfway point and the Patriots were taking on a pretty clear personality. They were the league bully—they would absolutely beat up and annihilate the bad teams in their path. But against the league’s best—the Broncos and Packers ultimately met in the Super Bowl—the Pats looked completely over their head.

And with a 5-3 record, a three-game road trip, two of them against eventual playoff teams from the NFC, was looming very large. New England went to Minnesota and dug an early 10-0 hole. Bledsoe would play well, going 27/42 for 313 yards. Martin would rush for 104 yards. But drives bogged down at key points and the Patriots lost 23-18.

A late afternoon game at Buffalo was a needed tonic and the bully got back into beating people up. Backup running back Derrick Cullors, doubling as a return man, brought a kickoff back to the house. The defense intercepted four passes and New England got to 6-4 with a 31-10 win.

But they gave it back with a poor performance at Tony Dungy’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Outrushed 146-75, the Pats had just twenty minutes of possession time in an ugly 27-7 loss.

Two AFC East home games were now crucial for a struggling 6-5 team. The Miami Dolphins, coached by Jimmy Johnson and led by Dan Marino, were another contender in this division race. The Dolphins visit would be followed by the Colts (a division rival prior to the realignment of 2002).

New England and Miami were tied up 3-3 when the big plays started coming for the Pats. Running back Dave Meggett showcased his arm and threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Brown. Whigam picked off a pass and took it sixty yards to the house. Another defensive back, Jimmy Hitchcock, intercepted a pass on the goal line and went 100 yards the other way. The Patriots led 27-3 and then held off a Dolphins comeback in a 27-24 win.

Bledsoe followed that up with a respectable 20/33 for 204 yards and no mistakes performance against the Colts. The 20-17 win over a bad team was by no means inspiring, but it got New England to 8-5 and into a tie for first place in the AFC East as the season entered December.

The Patriots, Jets and Dolphins were all deadlocked for the division lead. The league alignment of the time had only three divisions per conference and there were three wild-card berths available. With Denver and Kansas City easily the best two teams in the AFC, they would take one of those spots. Jacksonville, at 9-4, was in comfortable shape for another.

So even though 7-6 Tennessee was also in the mix, this was shaping up as three AFC East rivals playing a game of musical chairs for two playoff berths. But the Pats would be at one big disadvantage—Martin had a separated right shoulder and would miss the rest of the season.

New England went to Jacksonville. It was a rematch of last year’s AFC Championship Game. Given the Patriots’ less-than-stellar track record against quality opposition, and the absence of Martin, this game has to count as the best one the team played in 1997. Bledsoe went 26/35 for 234 yards and led the way to a 26-20 win.

The Dolphins kept pace, but the Jets lost. So did the Titans. The Patriots had an ironclad lock on the tiebreaker over Parcells’ team. New England was in a good situation.

But they had a tough opponent coming to town, the perennially contending Pittsburgh Steelers, for a late Saturday afternoon game. Bledsoe played well, threw three touchdowns and got his team out to a 21-13 lead. But without Martin there was no running game. The Pats couldn’t manage the clock. The Steelers tied it up, then won 24-21 in overtime.

On the positive side, the Dolphins also lost. But the Jets won. All three teams were tied at 9-6 going into the final week. What’s more, New England was going to Miami for the final Monday Night game of the season. The winner of that game would win the division title. But the loser wasn’t guaranteed anything yet.

The Jets were playing in Detroit on Sunday. Coincidentally, the Lions were also playing a win-or-go-home game. The scenario was simple—if the Jets won, then Monday Night in Miami would be a massive battle, either win the AFC East or go home. If the Jets lost, then the Monday Night game would simply be for seeding position.

To add to this little AFC East drama further, it was also guaranteed the division champ would be the 3-seed and the wild-card would be the 6-seed—they would play in the first round of the playoffs.

In a tough game in Detroit’s old Silverdome, the Jets lost. All of New England could breathe easy. They were at least back in the playoffs. The Monday Night game turned into a rather ugly affair with both teams knowing they were going to rematch a week later. The Patriots stopped a two-point conversion at the end to preserve a 14-12 win and get the home playoff game.

New England was a five-point favorite when Miami came north for Round Three the following Sunday afternoon. It was another fairly ugly game, but a Patriots fan would have no problem finding beauty amidst the ugliness. Bledsoe hit Brown with a 24-yard touchdown pass for the only points of the first half.

With Martin out, Cullors got his opportunity and made the most of it with 86 yards on the ground. The Pats defense completely shut down the Dolphin ground game. They sacked Marino four times, intercepted him twice and forced the Hall of Fame quarterback into an erratic performance.

The defense even threw in some points for good measure, with a Pick-6 from linebacker Todd Collins. Bledsoe’s performance was pedestrian—16/32 for 139 yards. But it was also clean, with no mistakes. That was enough in this 17-3 win.

A year earlier, the Patriots and Steelers met in the divisional round at Foxboro. Now it was time for a rematch on the banks of the Three Rivers. With the game scheduled for early Saturday afternoon, New England had a quick turnaround.

After Pittsburgh scored an early touchdown, the defense played another outstanding game. But there was no help from the offense. It’s not that there weren’t some big plays. Glenn had returned for the playoffs and he had a good day in this spot, five catches for 96 yards. So did Jefferson, catching nine balls for 104 yards. But there was no running game, Bledsoe otherwise struggled and the Pats couldn’t find the end zone.

A couple field goals cut the lead to 7-6 and a late goal line stand gave Bledsoe one last chance to rally his team. But the final drive stalled and the season was over.

All in all, the 1997 New England Patriots season has to be counted a success. Carroll was not a known commodity as a head coach. The defensive improvement and winning a competitive AFC East title—at a time when the franchise had only done so three times previously—in the transition, was a nice accomplishment. So was winning a playoff game.

The problem comes that in retrospect we know the Patriots were starting a decline. They regressed in 1998, while still sneaking into the playoffs. Then in 1999, they fell off the radar for a couple years, not to return until a guy named Brady showed up.