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20 years later, the Tuck Rule remains one of the biggest and most polarizing moments in NFL history

On January 19, 2002, NFL history was changed forever.

Foxboro Stadium did not see a lot of memorable games between its opening in 1971 and its demolition 31 years later. The New England Patriots did go a respectable 137-105 throughout the years, but they hosted only five playoff games.

One of those stands out above the rest, and two words are all that is needed to trigger an immediate reaction from NFL fans across the country: Tuck Rule.

20 years after that divisional round game between the Patriots and the visiting Oakland Raiders, it is still one of the biggest and most polarizing moments in league history. Not only did it spark two decades worth of discussions, it also changed the trajectory of two franchises for years to come.

All because of one play on the snowy Foxboro Stadium turf on January 19, 2002.

The Patriots entered the 2001 season, the second under head coach Bill Belichick, with plenty of questions after going just 5-11 the previous year. One they did not have to worry about was at the quarterback position: Drew Bledsoe had just signed a massive 10-year, $103 million contract and was locked into the QB1 spot.

Bledsoe, however, was knocked out in Week 2 and would have to miss multiple weeks. Bledsoe going down 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 to an 11-5 record and the second postseason seed in the AFC.

This, in turn, set the organization up with a meeting with a 10-6 Raiders team that boasted one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses.

Despite that, the divisional round game between the two clubs turned into a grudge match. The weather was a big reason for that: snow had been falling all game long and helped New England slow down the Raiders’ potent offensive attack. Despite that disadvantage, however, Oakland still jumped to a 13-3 lead entering the fourth quarter.

That’s when the Patriots started to fight back.

First, their second-year quarterback scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to three points. Brady capped a 10-play drive by scrambling into the end zone from 6 yards out. Down 13-10, it was time for the defense to manufacture a stop. They did just that, twice.

The first ended an Oakland possession at the New England 45-yard line. The second — after the offense failed to capitalize on it — was even more important.

The Raiders had taken over at their 35-yard line with 2:41 left. A 7-yard run was followed by Patriots timeout No. 1. A 2-yard run was followed by Patriots timeout No. 2, and set up a crucial 3rd-and-1 at the Oakland 44. A conversion would quite possibly ice the game in the visitors’ favor.

What followed, however, was Tedy Bruschi and Ty Law teaming up to stop the rushing attempt short of the sticks. The Raiders punted, giving New England and its young QB a final chance to salvage their season.

Troy Brown and Larry Izzo are but footnotes when the Tuck Rule game is discussed, but they had as big a role in it as the main actors.

Brown fielded the Raiders’ punt after the third down stop, returning it 27 yards to the New England 46-yard line. There, he fumbled the ball and Izzo was able to jump onto it. It was not the first time that had happened in the game, actually: earlier in the fourth quarter, Brown lost the ball on an 11-yard return with Izzo falling on top of it.

The Patriots scored a touchdown after that first fumble. They would need at least a field goal now to keep their season going.

With 2:06 left in the fourth quarter, Brady and the offense took over. A 7-yard pass to Kevin Faulk was followed by the two-minute warning and a 5-yard scramble that set New England up at the Raiders’ 42-yard line. What followed next is one of the most famous plays in NFL history.

On 1st-and-10, Brady stood in the pocket when former college teammate Charles Woodson hit him from his blindside. Brady lost the football and the ensuing scramble resulted in Oakland’s Greg Biekert falling on it to secure his team’s victory.

Or so everyone thought.

NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2 had something else in mind, however.

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 felt like an eternity even though it was just three minutes, and came out of the hood announcing his decision.

“After reviewing the play, the quarterback’s arm was going forward. It is an incomplete pass, 2nd-and-10 at the 42.”

After the Tuck Rule allowed the Patriots to keep the ball with under two minutes left on the clock, Brady connected with wide receiver David Patten to gain 13 yards and set up New England on the Raiders 29-yard line. Two incomplete throws and a 1-yard Brady scramble later, the home team faced a 4th-and-9 with 32 seconds remaining and down three points.

It was Adam Vinatieri time.

Despite the challenging conditions at the old Foxboro Stadium that day, Vinatieri had made his lone field goal attempt of the day up until that point. That 23-yarder in the third quarter was an easy task compared to the one that lay ahead, though.

In order for the Patriots to tie the game at 13 and keep their already miraculous season alive, the former rookie free agent had to split the uprights from 45 yards away through snow and wind. He did just that:

The game-tying 45-yard field goal — quite possibly the best kick ever made — allowed New England to take the game to overtime. After winning the coin toss, the team executed a 15-play drive that saw Tom Brady completed all nine of his pass attempts.

The Raiders had multiple chances to get off the field, but they could not capitalize. The biggest play of the series was a 4th-and-4 that saw Brady connect with David Patten to move the sticks on a 6-yard completion. Six plays later, Vinatieri split the uprights again to give the Patriots a 16-13 victory and punch the ticket to the AFC title game.

The aftermath of the Tuck Rule game is a story of two franchises.

The Patriots marched through the top-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers and to Super Bowl XXXVI, winning the first championship in franchise history by upsetting the 14-point favorite St. Louis Rams on yet another Vinatieri field goal. They would add five more Vince Lombardi Trophies over the next two decades, establishing themselves as the dynasty by which all others will be measured.

The Raiders, on the other hand, parted ways with head coach Jon Gruden just a month later. Gruden was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won a Super Bowl in his first season. Oakland was on the losing side of that game, but was a team in decline already at that point. The franchise would not return to the playoffs until 2016, still not having won a postseason game since January 2003.

The Tuck Rule was never the reason for those struggles — or the Patriots’ success, for that matter — and yet it is seen as a pivotal moment in both teams’ history. It helped kickstart New England’s dynasty, and rang in two decades of futility for the Raiders and might indirectly have contributed to the franchise leaving Oakland for Las Vegas in 2020.

The truth is much more complex than that, obviously.

The Patriots still had to make the plays to win the game after the controversial call. Likewise, the Raiders had their chances to make stops both in regulation and overtime. They could not, however, and New England advanced to the next playoff round as a result.

Nonetheless, the Tuck Rule is still frowned upon by those coming out on the losing side.

“The Tuck Rule is the bane of Raiders fans existence,” Bill Williamson of Silver and Black Pride told Pats Pulpit. “It remains as painful today as it was on the once hopeful Saturday night 20 years ago. The Raider Nation will simply never got over it or accept it.”

Referee Walt Coleman was the personification of that process. He became a persona non grata in Oakland and was never assigned another Raiders game after making the controversial but, given how the rule book was worded at the time, correct call.

Today, the rule itself is no longer part of the NFL after it was abolished following the 2012 season. And yet, its name is alive and well — thanks to one of the pivotal games in league history.

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