1976 New England Patriots: One of the Best Teams of the 1970s That Didn't Win a Super Bowl.
From 1960 to 1975, the New England Patriots, formerly playing as the Boston Patriots, didn't have much to brag about during the team's 16-year history. The only postseason appearance came in 1963 when the Pats lost big to the San Diego Chargers, 51–10, in the old American Football League title game. Then, from 1967–75, the team didn't have a winning season.
Management and fans thought the Pats' fortunes would change when the team hired Chuck Fairbanks in 1973, but the Pats went 15–27 from' 73–75, finishing 1975 with a dismal 3–11 record. Hope was running thin, and Coach Fairbanks (understandably) was under fire. Was more losing on the way?
Beginning of the 1976 Season
New England started the 1976 season right where they left off in 1975, losing to the Baltimore Colts. But the Patriots returned strong in Week Two with an easy win over the Miami Dolphins.
Then the Patriots traveled to Pittsburgh the following week to face the defending Super Bowl champion Steelers. New England scored a surprising victory in the rain (forcing six fumbles), upsetting the Steelers 30–27 with a second-half rally.
It was a game that would set the tenor for what became a turnaround season. The Patriots kept winning in Week Four, humiliating the eventual Super Bowl champ Oakland Raiders, 48–17. It was the Raiders' only loss of the 1975 campaign.
A Yo-Yo Act
But then New England did a yo-yo act, going 2–2 over the next four weeks. First, the Pats lost by twenty to the Lions, and then they beat the Jets by 34. Then, they won and lost close games–edging the Bills by four and losing by a touchdown in the rematch with Miami.
The season could go either way, standing at 5–3 on the year. Thankfully for Patriots fans, it went the right way as New England reeled off six wins in a row to close the season, scoring wins over the eventual 11–3 Colts and the 9–5 Broncos, among others.
New England finished the 1976 regular season 11–3, tied with the Colts for first place in their division. And even though Baltimore won the tie-breaker, the Patriots earned a Wild Card spot in the playoffs.
Their first-round opponent was the 13–1 Raiders. Although they had beaten the Raiders in Week Four, the Patriots knew the rematch would not be an easy game, and attitude and game-prep served them well. The Patriots led 21–10 before Oakland scored a touchdown to cut the lead to four.
The turning point came when Oakland faced a 3rd-and-18 at the Patriot's 36-yard line with only a minute left in the game. A controversial roughing-the-passer penalty gave the Raiders a first down, and Oakland scored a touchdown with only 10 seconds left to win the game 24–21.
One can only wonder what might have happened if the Patriots had held on and beat the Raiders that day. Still, it was an excellent season for a team no one expected to go as far as it did.
The team gained 3,121 yards rushing by the season's end and scored 397 points (playoff game included). Chuck Fairbanks won the NFL Coach of the Year award, and cornerback Mike Haynes won Rookie of the Year honors. Guard John Hannah, tackle Leon Gray, tight end Russ Francis, and cornerback Mike Haynes played in the Pro Bowl.
I think the 1976 New England Patriots were one of the best teams of the 1970s not to win the Super Bowl. And the success the team had in 1976 continued. The Patriots had only one losing season from 1976–1988 and finally won a Championship in 1985, winning the AFC title game over the Miami Dolphins 31–14.