The early 1990s were tumultuous times for the New England Patriots. Issues on and off the field, stagnating attendance records and an unstable ownership situation left the future of the franchise in doubt. However, some major changes in 1993 and 1994 paved the way for New England to become the model of stability and success they are today.
Bill Parcells, one of the NFL’s premier coaches, arrived in Foxboro in 1993 to take over the new-look Patriots. His first draft, which saw the team pick number one overall, brought the franchise quarterback it had lacked for most of its existence: Drew Bledsoe. The following season saw Robert Kraft buy the Patriots for a then-record sum of $172 million.
The same year, New England also returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 1986 season. After starting the season 3-6, the 1994 Patriots finished with a 7-game winning streak to bring their final record to 10-6; good enough to earn them the second place in the AFC East and the number five playoff seed.
It also earned the team a date with the 11-5 Cleveland Browns, a team led by one of Parcells’ former coordinators: Bill Belichick.
Belichick was in his fourth season as the head coach of the Browns, whom he slowly but steadily improved to become one of football’s better teams. In 1994, Cleveland had the league’s best defense (giving up 12.75 points on average) and its +136 scoring differential was the third best in the NFL. In short: the team was very good despite some questionable quarterback play. Belichick’s Browns entered the tilt with his mentor’s Patriots as the favorites.
On a cold and humid New Year’s Day, the two teams faced off at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. New England received the opening kick-off but despite good field position was unable to substantially move the ball, which led to the team being forced to punt. The Browns fared better and scored a field goal on their first possession.
Momentum shifted even more Cleveland’s way two plays later, when Bledsoe threw an interception on the Patriots’ side of the field. The Browns, however, were unable to capitalize and thus New England slowly fought its way back into the game. Early in the second quarter, the Patriots eventually took the lead, when Bledsoe and running back Leroy Thompson connected on a 13-yard touchdown pass.
The very next drive saw another lead-change, as the Browns went ahead 10-7. Before halftime, New England tied the game at 10 thanks to a 23-yard Matt Bahr field goal. It was the final time the Patriots’ scored that day even though the second half started favorably for the team: the team forced and recovered a Browns fumble. However, the offense was unable to take advantage and had to punt the ball away.
10 plays later, the Browns took the lead again. New England was still in the game despite now being down seven points. Even after Bledsoe threw two interceptions in the span of three pass attempts midway through the final period, New England was still in it. However, the team could not entirely come back from the 10-point fourth quarter deficit. The Patriots scored a field goal, they recovered the subsequent onside kick, but four incomplete passes sealed New England’s fate and decided the game in favor of Belichick and his squad.
The 20-13 victory, the last playoff win the Browns have been able to celebrate, was the high-point of the future Hall of Famer’s five seasons in Cleveland. On Sunday, he returns to the city, trying to do what Parcells has been unable to do on January 1st, 1995: leave it with a win.