The Patriots showed some promise in their early years as a franchise, as they posted a winning record in five of their first seven seasons from 1960-66 and reached the AFL Championship Game in 1963 (which they lost to the San Diego Chargers).
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But then they started to slide in the late ’60s and into the ’70s, finishing with a non-winning record nine years in a row from 1967-75 and missing the playoffs every year.
In 1976, however, the Patriots turned things around 180 degrees. After a 3-11 last-place finish in 1975, they went 11-3 and returned to the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
The ’76 Pats featured one of the most prolific rushing attacks the NFL had seen to that point, as they averaged 5 yards per carry and 210 yards per game for 2,948 yards on the season running behind an offensive line that featured All-Pro guard John Hannah and Pro Bowl tackle Leon Gray, not to mention Pro Bowl tight end Russ Francis, who was also considered an elite blocker.
Running backs Sam “Bam” Cunningham and Andy Johnson each had over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, Don Calhoun added another 721 on the ground, and quarterback Steve Grogan ran for 397 yards and a team-high 12 touchdowns while throwing for another 1,903 yards and 18 TDs.
The defense and special teams, meanwhile, got a huge boost in the form of rookie Mike Haynes, who quickly emerged as one of the best cornerbacks and punt returners in the league, racking up eight interceptions and a pair of punt return touchdowns and earning Pro Bowl honors in his first season.
The Patriots’ Cinderella season would end in controversy in Oakland in the divisional round of the playoffs, though. New England, who had handed the Raiders their only loss of the regular season in a 48-17 Week 4 thrashing in Foxboro, led 21-17 late in the fourth quarter, but the Raiders were on the move looking for the winning score.
Oakland got inside the 30, but then a big sack by Mel Lunsford set up a 3rd & 18. Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler threw an incomplete pass on the next play, seemingly setting up a desperation 4th & 18 play to decide the game. But, there was a flag.
In one of the most controversial penalties in NFL history, referee Ben Dreith called roughing the passer on Patriots nose tackle Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton. While Hamilton’s arm had made contact with Stabler’s helmet as he hit him, it wasn’t a penalty that was called much in those days like it is today.
The penalty gave the Raiders an automatic first down, and they went on to score the winning touchdown with 14 seconds left in the game. The Patriots would prove to be Oakland’s only real test in the postseason, as they went on to crush the Steelers in the AFC championship game and then the Vikings in the Super Bowl.
While the ’76 season ended in disappointment, it put the Patriots back on the map and set up a string of respectable, if not great, years. They had a winning record in 10 of the next 12 seasons and finally reached their first Super Bowl in 1985, with four members of the ’76 squad still in place in Grogan, Hannah, linebacker Steve Nelson and defensive lineman Julius Adams.