I’m going to start this with a question for any NFL fan under the age of 25: What was the most memorable NFL game that you’ve watched the past 10 years? For me, it is unquestionably the 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the Raiders and Patriots, whose 10 year anniversary will be six days from now. Unofficially, its anniversary will be tomorrow night, where like 2002, the Patriots will host a Saturday night Divisional playoff game.
The game had everything you could ask for in a playoff football game – drama, controversy, a stunning fourth quarter comeback, and it was played in the greatest setting of any recent playoff game – a snowstorm.
When you think of classic football, you imagine teams playing in Chicago, Green Bay or Cleveland with ghastly below-freezing temperatures. Usually, your memory will also conjure up images of snow falling on the – yes I will use this phrase – the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
So on MLK Day weekend, the Oakland Raiders traveled 3000 miles to take on the Patriots, who captured the second best seed in the AFC under rookie quarterback, Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick, who was in his second year as the head coach of the Patriots. Living in New York, whenever there is a nor’easter, we naturally get the weather before Massachusetts does. So even at 12 years old, as soon as I saw that it had started snowing here, it would be doing that in Foxboro for the late game.
The Patriots would be eventually be playing their final game at Foxboro Stadium, which had been their home for 30 years. In fact, it is due to the purchase of the stadium by Robert Kraft, in 1988, that helped him to buy the team in 1994. Now, with a coach and friend in Bill Belichick, and a team that seemed destined to break the long history of losing, the life-long Patriots fan would watch history play out.
For all the concern of a rookie quarterback in a snowstorm, the Patriots came out passing, setting up screen passes that quickly moved them into Raiders territory. In no-man’s land on 4th and short, Belichick continued to be aggressive, calling a pass play that was thrown behind Troy Brown, which gave the Raiders the ball. But the tone had been set – the Patriots weren’t going to be afraid of the snow. Who runs a spread offense in the snow with a rookie quarterback playing in his first postseason game? The Patriots do.
The Raiders weren’t phased by the snow either. After three fruitless possessions, the Raiders got a break when the Patriots were called for a fair catch interference penalty late in the first quarter. The Raiders took control at mid-field, and when Rich Gannon hit James Jett, the game’s first points were on the board, 7-0 Raiders, with 12 minutes left in the first half.
The Patriots got the ball to start the second half, and Brady, much more accurate than his four completion first half performance, drove his team inside the Raiders 10 yard line. The drive stalled, but it set up Adam Vinatieri to make his first of three field goals, this one from 23 yards out.
The Raiders only managed to get two more field goals in the third quarter, giving them a 10 point lead, and setting up the dramatic finale.
With 8 minutes left in the game, Brady completed a four and a half minute drive with a 6 yard touchdown run to cut the lead to three. Brady, on that drive, was nine-for-nine through the air. New England had finally reached the endzone, and the fans were back into the game. Now it was the defense’s turn to hold. They held, and after New England’s drive stalled, held again, stopping the Raiders on second and two and third and one, forcing a punt.
Troy Brown had an electric return, but lost the football as he was tackled. But it bounced right back to New England’s Larry Izzo. The snowy conditions had finally forced its first fumble. It was about to cause another. The Patriots were out of time outs, but had good field position at their own 46 yardline. The first play netted seven yards and ran the clock to the two minute warning. Then Brady scrambled for three yards and out of bounds to get a first down.
Then, it was time for history. From the Oakland 42, Brady set up in a shotgun formation. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, to Brady’s right, was Charles Woodson, Brady’s college teammate at Michigan. Woodson blitzed, and for the first time all game, no Patriots blocker picked him up. Brady pumped, and as the ball was still going back into his chest, Woodson collided with Brady and the ball popped loose. Greg Biekert quickly jumped on the loose ball and covered up, seemingly sealing the victory for the Raiders. Automatically, the play was reviewed to see if it was indeed a fumbled ball.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt,” said Phil Simms, who called the game with Greg Gumbel on CBS. But referee Walt Coleman saw it differently, and as it states in the rule book. NFL Rule 3, Section 22, Article 2, Note 2, which was added in 1999 reads: 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 towards his body.
The call was reversed. The crowd, the announcers, the teams and the nation watching in disbelief. “It, of course, is up to Walt Coleman’s interpretation,” remarked Gumbel, perhaps more shocked than anyone.
Contrary to the shift in emotions, the game was still not New England’s. They still needed to put up at least three points. A long field goal for the consistent Adam Vinatieri would be tough to pull off, having no footing in a snowstorm that had only worsened as the game progressed. But, after a completion by Brady, the offense stalled at the 28, and that was what the Patriots were faced with. 45 yards for a tie.
On video, if you look for the ball as it’s up in the air, you won’t find it. The snow, the crowd’s dark clothes, pre-HD cameras all contribute to anyone looking at the video to be unable to find the ball. But in what is, hand down, the greatest kick in the history of the NFL, Adam Vinatieri just barely did put it through and over the uprights. Tie game.
The Patriots got the ball to begin overtime, and never gave it back. Eight plays in, the Patriots were inside the Raiders’ 30 yard line, and faced fourth down, but were not comfortable trying another long field goal in the snow, this time kicking into the wind. So Belichick sent Brady and the offense out onto the field to convert on fourth and four. Brady completed it to a diving David Patten and picked up five yards for a fresh set of downs. Five plays later, it finally was time for Vinatieri to win it from 23 yards out, and it was a no doubter. The Patriots won, and a few weeks later, a dynasty was born.
The game sticks out to me as one of my favorites, up there with the 2004 AFC Championship Game between Indianapolis and New England, again in a snowy Foxboro. I think of the game as being one of the last before rule changes made the game nearly unplayable for defenders. This was prior to the 2004 rule change that included a point of emphasis on illegal contact on receivers. This was before Gillette Stadium and its heated field to help melt snow and ice was built. This is football the way it was meant to be played. If this was your first time watching a football game, it would look like a damn fun game to watch. Short of a few Super Bowls, I can’t remember that many playoff games that were this good, or this dramatic and controversial. But Super Bowls (until 2014) are played in domes or warm weather climates, not in conditions like this.
Raiders fans will point to this game and the Tuck play and say that they were robbed. But in the end, the entire sport gained a signature moment in the game’s rawest conditions. So the Ice Bowl, the Sneakers Game, Leon Lett in snowy Dallas are joined by these moment – a fumble that is overturned, a miracle kick squeaking over the crossbar, a team of destiny celebrating in the snow – serving as images of the sport in all of its winter glory.
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