Today, the New England Patriots will play in their eleventh AFC Championship Game; the ninth since quarterback Tom Brady became starter in 2001. 16 years earlier, the franchise appeared in its first conference title game. Let's take a look at it.
In 1985, the Patriots played second fiddle in the AFC East behind the Miami Dolphins and their star quarterback Dan Marino. The year prior, the 24-year old had passed for an NFL record 48 touchdowns, while leading his team to the Super Bowl. The Dolphins' dominance continued in 1985, as the team went 12-4 and earned the AFC's number two seed, behind the 12-4 Los Angeles Raiders.
While Miami won its Divisional Playoff Game against the third seeded Cleveland Browns 24-21, the Raiders lost 27-20 against the number five seed: the New England Patriots. This set up the Championship Game in Miami's Orange Bowl; a stadium in which New England had lost its last 18 games.
The Patriots won eleven games in 1985, which was enough to secure the fifth and final spot in the AFC playoffs. In the Wild Card Round, coach Raymond Berry's team had to travel to New York, where the Patriots beat the Jets 26-14. The next week, the team traveled to Los Angeles to beat the Raiders. Due to the win, the team earned the right to play in its first conference title game.
During the regular season, the teams split the series: the Patriots had beaten the Dolphins 17-13 in Foxboro Stadium; the Dolphins had beaten the Patriots 30-27 in the re-match in Florida. While both those games were close affairs, the title game was not.
Things started well for the visiting Patriots, as linebacker Steve Nelson forced a fumble on Miami's first offensive play. The loose ball was recovered by defensive end Garin Veris to set up a 23-yard Tony Franklin field goal; the only score in the first quarter.
The second quarter started with a Dan Marino touchdown pass to tight end Dan Johnson, giving the Dolphins 7-3 lead. It was, however, the last time that Miami held the lead in the game, as the Patriots would score the game's next 21 points via three Tony Eason touchdown passes.
Eason attempted only 12 passes that day, but completed 10 of them for 71 yards and three touchdowns. Two of those came in the second quarter (to Tony Collins and Derrick Ramsey, respectively), to give the Patriots a 17-7 halftime lead. Eason's third scoring pass was a two-yarder to running back Robert Weathers.
The running backs in general were one positive of the Patriots' game. Weathers, Collins, Craig James and Mosi Tatupu combined to rush for 255 yards and one touchdown (by Tatupu; in the fourth quarter) on 59 attempts. Due to the strong running game, the team was able to hold the ball for almost 40 minutes.
Holding the ball was an issue for the Dolphins all game long. Not only did Miami's offense possess the ball for just 20 minutes; the team also turned the ball over six times (compared to two New England giveaways). Safety Fred Marion and cornerback Raymond Clayborne each intercepted a pass, while defensive linemen Julius Adams and Lester Williams as well as special teamer Greg Hawthorne joined Veris as players to recover a Dolphins' fumble.
In the end, the Patriots snapped their 18-game losing streak at the Orange Bowl and won the game 31-14. An opportunistic defense and an efficient offense combined to give the franchise its first AFC title (the Patriots would go on to play the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX; a game the team lost 46-10).
Hopefully, the Patriots can add another conference championship today.
Highlights from the 1985 AFC Championship Game:
Note from the author: To view the first two articles of "Pats' Past" -- the Pats Pulpit New England Patriots' history series -- click here.