After losing Super Bowl XX, the New England Patriots were headed towards the most tumultuous ten-year span in franchise history; both on and off the field. On the field, the team struggled to repeat the success of its 1985 season: The Patriots had five consecutive losing seasons from 1989 to 1993. The low point was reached in 1990, when New England went 1-15 and had the worst in-season point differential of the 1990s at -265.
While the on-field-product was at best mediocre and at worst a disaster, the off-field environment was by no means better.
The franchise saw three ownership changes from 1988 to 1994, when Robert Kraft bought the Patriots to avoid a possible re-location to St. Louis. A year before Kraft purchased the team, then-owner James Orthwein was looking for a new coach after firing Dick MacPherson, who went 8-24 in his two years at the helm. And the one he found was eventually able to bring the Patriots back to relevancy – and the Super Bowl: Bill Parcells.
Parcells’ tenure started with selecting quarterback Drew Bledsoe with the first overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft. One year later, the team reached the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Two years after that, it won its first playoff game in 11 years. Three weeks later, the team faced the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
Super Bowl XXXI: New England Patriots vs. Green Bay Packers
Date: January 26, 1997
Stadium: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans LA
Final Score: New England Patriots 21, Green Bay Packers 35
Not even six minutes had passed in the first quarter of Super Bowl XXXI, when the Patriots already found themselves in a 10-point hole. On Green Bay’s second offensive play of the day, Brett Favre hit wide receiver Andre Rison for a 54-yard touchdown. Three plays later, Drew Bledsoe threw an interception, which the Packers converted into a field goal. The Patriots, however, fought back and entered the second quarter up 14-10 — thanks to two Bledsoe touchdown passes; one apiece to fullback Keith Byars and tight end Ben Coates.
While the Patriots were back in the game they, just like in the first quarter, failed to stop the big play: An 81-yard touchdown pass gave the Packers a 17-14 lead. New England was unable to find any offensive rhythm and, to make matters worse, Bledsoe threw another interception midway through the quarter. On the ensuing 10-play, 74-yard drive, Green Bay expanded its lead even further, and the Patriots — after failing to convert on 4th and 2 in Packers’ territory with 26 seconds to go — headed into the locker room down 27-14.
The second half began a little better for New England. On the opening drive of the third quarter, the team’s defense stopped the Packers on a 4th and 1 attempt in New England territory. However, the offense was unable to turn the solid field position into points. The team would have to wait until its next drive, when running back Curtis Martin scored on an 18-yard touchdown run. Momentum would soon shift back to the NFC Champions, though, as eventual Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard returned Adam Vinatieri’s subsequent kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Green Bay led 35-21 heading into the final quarter of the 1996 NFL season.
The Patriots tried to rally but could not mount a comeback. The team’s fourth quarter drives ended as follows: 3-and-out. Interception. 3-and-out. Interception. The quarter ended scoreless, and Green Bay won its third Lombardi Trophy. Overall, the Patriots were outgained 323-257, while Bledsoe threw four interceptions and was sacked five times (the Patriots – led by Tedy Bruschi’s two sacks – also registered five quarterback take-downs).
New England’s second Super Bowl appearance was — as opposed to the team’s first — a more competitive contest. The Patriots’ turnovers and inabilities to prevent the big play were too much to overcome, though, and thus, just like 11 years earlier, the Patriots came up short in the Louisiana Superdome.
After the game, Bill Parcells resigned as head coach of the New England Patriots due to disputes with owner Robert Kraft. After leaving Foxboro, Parcells became head coach of the New York Jets — his defensive coordinator in New York would eventually lead the Patriots to pro football’s promised land: Bill Belichick.