On opening day of the 1976 NFL season, the Patriots looked back on a postseason drought that began in 1964. The team had its last winning record in 1966. As a matter of fact, the New England Patriots never had been to the playoffs or enjoyed a season above .500 – all the minor success the franchise have had occurred prior to the 1971 re-branding, when the team was still known as the Boston Patriots.
Coming off a 3-11 campaign, the 1976 team, under fourth-year head coach Chuck Fairbanks, did not seem like a break-out candidate. But break out they did.
The season did not start well and the Patriots dropped their opening game 13-27 to the visiting Baltimore Colts. Second-year quarterback Steve Grogan turned the ball over five times and the team was unable to keep up with the Colts despite out-gaining them yardage-wise. The Patriots' offensive issues, however, looked like a thing of the distant past in the next weeks. Against the Miami Dolphins (30-14), Pittsburgh Steelers (30-27) and Oakland Raiders (48-17), New England scored a combined 108 points.
At that point, the 3-1 Patriots looked like the best team in – at least – the American Football Conference. Not only offensively did they start to click, they were also successful on defense, as evidenced by the 14 takeaways accumulated in weeks 2 to 4. While turnovers were one of the cornerstones of the team's defensive success in 1976 – after all, the Patriots finished with a league-leading 50 takeaways – they were not the only reason for the success. Only six times did the defense allow more than 300 yards of offense – only once in the second half of the season.
One of those six times occurred in week 5, when the Patriots slipped to 3-2 after losing 10-30 in Detroit. The team's week 1 offensive woes returned, at least for this game, as the Patriots turned the ball over five times (five Grogan interceptions). The next week, in Foxboro against the New York Jets, the offense was back on track: led by Grogan, who had 182 passing yards and 103 of the team's 330 rushing yards, the Patriots destroyed their opponent, winning 41-7.
New England would also win its next game – 26-22 in Buffalo – before falling to 5-3 after losing to the Dolphins. The loss in Miami would be the Patriots' last regular season loss in 1976 as they would go on to win their final six regular season games. Among those victories were some truly noteworthy ones.
In week 9, during the Patriots' 20-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills, rookie cornerback Mike Haynes became the first Patriot ever to return a punt for a touchdown. He also had one of the team's four interceptions – overall, the defense had eight takeaways that day. The takeaway-bonanza reached new heights two weeks later. New England beat the Jets 38-24 in New York – a game in which the Patriots' defense caused 10 turnovers; among them seven interceptions: Haynes had three picks, while safety Prentice McCray returned two interception for touchdowns.
Another week later, the then-8-3 Patriots played host to the Denver Broncos. Fullback Don Calhoun had 177 of New England's 332 rushing yards, the Patriots' defense registered nine quarterback sacks and Haynes returned yet another punt for a score. The Patriots won the game 38-14.
The Patriots ended their 1976 regular season with an 11-3 record – tied for second best in the AFC – and as the number four seed in the conference. New England had scored the second most points in the league (26.9/game), while allowing the 11th fewest (16.9/game). Furthermore, the team led the league in rushing yards per attempt (5.0) and, as mentioned above, takeaways (50).
New England entered the playoffs on a high note but was still considered the underdog when it faced the 13-1 Oakland Raiders – owners of the best record in football – on the West Coast. The Raiders' lone loss was suffered at the hands of the Patriots two months earlier but the divisional playoff game would not prove as lopsided as the teams' week 4 meeting.
Running back Andy Johnson scored the game's first touchdown to give New England a 7-0 lead, but the Raiders countered with 10 unanswered points to take a 10-7 halftime-lead. The third quarter of the game saw the Patriots re-gain momentum and re-gain the lead. A 26-yard touchdown pass from Steve Grogan to tight end Russ Francis – who had his nose broken during the game – gave the Patriots a 14-10 lead; a Jess Phillips touchdown-run increased the Patriots' lead to 11-points in the third quarter.
But the team was unable to hold on to the lead after Oakland came within one score in the fourth quarter. With the Patriots leading 21-17 late in the final period, kicker John Smith missed a 50-yard attempt to extend the lead with 4:12 left in the game. On the ensuing possession, the Raiders were driving for a game-winning touchdown. In the final two minutes of the game it looked as if the Patriots had stopped the Raiders on 3rd-and-18 after quarterback Ken Stabler's pass fell incomplete.
However, referee Ben Dreith called roughing the passer on Patriots' defensive end Ray Hamilton and thus, instead of 4th-and-18, gave the home-team a fresh set of downs – one of the most controversial calls of all time.
Penalties were a factor all game long. The Raiders were flagged 11 times, the Patriots 10 – yet Hamilton's penalty changed the complexion of the game in a way no other of the 21 flags did. Was it the sole reason the Patriots lost the game? No, but without the questionable flag, New England would have been in prime position to stop Oakland's rally. However, the revitalized Raiders went down the field to win 24-21. They would eventually go on to win the Super Bowl. The Patriots, on the other hand, would not win a postseason game until 1985.
Still, despite the early and controversial playoff exit, the 1976 squad was one of the best teams the Patriots have ever had. Quarterback Steve Grogan – who broke the record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback that year (12) – was the leader of one of football's most talented offenses; a unit that also included future Hall of Famer John Hannah as well as Pro Bowlers Sam Cunningham, Russ Francis and Leon Gray. The '76 defense, on the other hand, was lead by future Hall of Famer and defensive rookie of the year Mike Haynes and Pro Bowlers Steve Nelson and Julius Adams.
One testament of how good the 1976 Patriots were: three of the seven players whose jersey numbers were retired by the franchise – Hannah (#73), Haynes (#40), Nelson (#57) – were members of that team. A team, whose season ended in great disappointment but was a great season nevertheless.