Welcome to SB Nation’s Revenge Week: all week long, the entire network will be devoted to those stories of payback — and Pats Pulpit is no exception. Today, we kick things off with one of the most famous revenge stories in Patriots history. Revenge, after all, is a dish best served cold. January in New England cold.
The Patriots entered the 1976 NFL season as the ultimate underdog. They looked back on a playoff drought that began in 1964, and had their last winning season in 1966. As a matter of fact, the New England Patriots never had even been to the playoffs or enjoyed a season above .500: all the minor success the franchise has had up to that point occurred prior to the 1971 re-branding, when the team was still known as the Boston Patriots.
And coming off a 3-11 campaign, the team under fourth-year head coach Chuck Fairbanks did not seem like a break-out candidate. But break out they did: behind the second best offense in football — one that put 26.9 points on the board per game — and a defense that ranked eleventh in scoring, the team cruised to an 11-3 regular season record. Along the way, the Patriots defeated some of the best the NFL had to offer in 1976.
“Back then, the AFC was so much stronger than the NFC, with Pittsburgh, Miami and the Raiders. And we beat them all,” said linebacker Steve Nelson when looking back on what was one of the most successful seasons in Patriots history up to that point. The team was able to accomplish that due to some outstanding play on both sides of the ball: the offense led the league in rushing yards per attempt (5.0), while the defense forced the most takeaways (50).
“I played on that  team that went to the Super Bowl, but I think that ‘76 team had more talent,” starting quarterback Steve Grogan, then in his second year in the NFL and his first as a full-time starter, said. Grogan was a key member of the Patriots’ 1976 squad, especially because he added another dimension to the team’s attack: he scored a position-record twelve rushing touchdowns in 1976 — a record that stood until 2011.
With the former fifth-round draft pick at the helm, the Patriots were able to enter the playoffs on a six-game winning streak. Nevertheless, the club was an underdog in its first postseason contest in twelve years: New England had to travel to Oakland, to take on a Raiders team that lost only once during the regular season. Coincidentally, however, that loss came at the hands of the Patriots — and in blowout fashion.
In week four of the regular season, the club beat the eventual top seed in the AFC with a final score of 48-17. The playoff meeting two and a half months later, however, would not prove to be as lopsided: the Patriots played a sloppy game and therefore found themselves up by just four points, 21-17, with four minutes left in the game. In order to advance to the next round, they needed to stop the Raiders’ offense from scoring a potentially game-winning touchdown.
On a 3rd and 18, it appeared as if they did just that: a Ken Stabler pass down the left sideline fell incomplete, and the Patriots were close to ending the game in their favor. They never got that chance, however, as referee Ben Dreith made one of the most controversial calls of all time: New England defensive end Ray Hamilton was flagged for roughing the passer after hitting Stabler in the helmet. A clear foul nowadays, but more of a gray area in the 1970s.
“I just figured that somebody had held one of our guys. I just knew that’s what it was. It couldn’t have been anything else. I was totally shocked. It was just a phantom, bogus call,” Hamilton told NFL Films three decades after Dreith threw the infamous flag. Fellow defender Mike Haynes, who went on to join the Raiders in 1983, expressed a similar sentiment: “There’s just no way to get around it: to me that was a terrible call that changed the whole game.”
Was the roughing the passer call the only reason the Patriots lost the game? No, but without the questionable flag — one of 21 thrown by Dreith that day — New England would have been in prime position to stop Oakland’s last-minute drive. Instead, however, the revitalized Raiders went down the field to win 24-21. They would eventually go on to win the Super Bowl, while the Patriots’ postseason winning drought would remain alive until 1985.
Fast forward 25 years, to January 2002 and another playoff meeting between the Patriots and the Raiders. The setting was somewhat similar for New England: the club entered the 2001 season, the second under head coach Bill Belichick, with plenty of questions after going just 5-11 the previous year. To make matters worse, it also lost starting quarterback Drew Bledsoe to a multi-week injury just two weeks into the regular season.
Bledsoe going down, however, paved the way for a little-known backup quarterback to move into the starting role. Tom Brady never looked back and helped lead the Patriots — one of the most balanced teams in football that season — to an 11-5 record and the second postseason seed in the AFC. This, in turn, set the organization up to meet the team that knocked it out of the playoff race in 1976: a 10-6 Raiders team that boasted one of the NFL’s better offenses.
Despite that, the divisional round game between the two clubs turned into a defensively dominated affair — in part because of the weather: snow was falling all day long, helping New England slow down the Raiders’ potent offensive attack. That being said, Oakland still jumped to a 13-3 lead entering the fourth quarter. That’s when Brady and the Patriots offense finally found some life.
First, the second-year quarterback scored his team’s lone touchdown to cut the deficit to three points. Later, with 2:06 left in the fourth quarter, he led the Patriots all the way to the Raiders’ 42-yard line. What happened next became a subject of countless debates, and one of the most famous plays in NFL history. On 1st and 10, Brady was sacked, the football came loose, and Oakland’s Greg Biekert fell on the ball to secure his team’s victory.
Or so everyone thought until NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 came into play:
When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble.
Referee Walt Coleman reviewed the play for what seemed like an eternity but was rather just three minutes, and came out of the hood announcing his decision that the play would be overturned — and that the home team would remain in possession of the football despite what looked like a fumble: “After reviewing the play, the quarterback’s arm was going forward. It is an incomplete pass, 2nd and 10 at the 42.”
The rest, as they say, is history. New England marched to a game-tying 45-yard field goal — arguably the best kick of Adam Vinatieri’s legendary career — and later won 16-13 in overtime on another kick. The Patriots then marched through the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and to Super Bowl 36, winning the first title in franchise history by upsetting the 14-point favorite Rams, back then still based in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, Walt Coleman — much like Ben Dreith a quarter century earlier — became a persona non grata in the defeated team’s home town: he was never assigned another Raiders game after making the controversial but, given how the rule book was worded at the time, correct call. The Tuck Rule itself remained in use in the NFL until it was abolished after the 2012 season.
For the Patriots, the playoff contest now known as the ‘Tuck Rule Game’ was more than just a springboard for an unlikely dynasty that continues to this day: from Dreith to Coleman, from Stabler to Brady, and from Oakland to New England, it also was revenge 25 years in the making.