Most iconic games in the NFL produce one single enduring image. “The Catch”, “The Drive”, “Music City Miracle”, all evoke an image in the minds of fans and foes alike. No game, that I know of, has the ability to bring forth two separate and distinct images across two coasts, like the Snow Bowl, or the Tuck Rule game. With so many more great moments in that game, it’s truly a New England classic, or a southern California nightmare. Or both.
In the original “is it a catch?” debate in the NFL, the rule stated that if the player had completed the forward motion of a pass and still retained possession of the ball, when he began to tuck the back back towards his body it could be fumbled. On that snowy January 19th divisional playoff game, this new rule was thrust front and center.
For much of the game the Raiders appeared to be in control. In fact, with just eight minutes to go, in the 4th quarter, they led 13-3. Tom Brady running through the snow like a kid in a school playground scored on a six- yard run and brought the Pats within three points of the lead. On the opening play of the next drive the Patriots took over on their own 46 yard line with 2:06 to play.
With the Raiders overhearing the play call, Rod Wolfson blitzed and appeared to cause a fumble as Brady tucked the ball back to his body. Referee Walt Coleman went under the hood and reversed the fumble, ruling it an incomplete pass. Raider fans and players howled alike. A lot of anger and shock at that call lingers years later. With the next play, Tom Brady completed a 13-yard pass to David Patten to bring them within field goal range. Adam Vinatieri hit it from 45 yards out and tied the game. Who would advance in the playoffs would be decided in overtime.
To me as a Patriots fan, with roots in New England, this creates the most enduring image in the team’s history. The snowfall intensity picked up. The field was an entire blanket of white. The precise stripes of the yard markers disappeared. Players ran and stumbled through small piles of snow, and the bits of grass and dirt kicked in the air attest to the difficulty of playing in such conditions. As Tom Brady worked his magic in the winds and snow in the stadium, he drove the offense 61 yards to bring them within field goal range. Once the decision to kick for the win was made, it was a mad scramble to clear the field to give Vinatieri a chance.
Luckily, Raiders coach Jon Gruden called a time out. Patriots players were kicking the field clear. The holder Ken Walter was preparing a spot on Adam Vinatieri’s precise mark. With a pressure-filled moment in the most difficult conditions possible, his 23-yard kick was perfect. A small puff of snow and dirt replaced the brown football and it’s tumbling movement through the air. As it went straight through the uprights the diminutive football player with the massive leg raised his arms in triumph as the Patriots continued their journey to football glory. Patriots with the W, 16-13.
There are so many fantastic elements about this game for a Patriots fan. Tom Brady stepping in after Drew Bledsoe suffered that horrific injury. The magic of that season as the Pats won 11 games and the #2 seed in the playoffs. The final game being played in Foxboro Stadium before the move to Gillette. Jon Gruden coaching a Raiders team that was good and struck fear in people’s hearts. It’s easy to forget a time when the Patriots were not that good.
You only have to look at our opponents in that game and see how difficult it is to remain at the top of the football world. So while the New England dynasty was beginning, the Raiders would have just one more year of fame. After their Super Bowl loss the very next year, they have struggled to produce even a glimmer of hope for their fans. The Patriots have gone on and given its fans a period of time that should be forever treasured and remembered. And it could be said that it all started on that snowy field, in a New England snowstorm with the football flying through the air.