The 1996 New England Patriots Were The Most Forgotten Super Bowl Team

The 2020 NFL season may have seen the end of the greatest dynasty in sports history. There is almost no example of such a sustained run of excellence as the 19-year run of the New England Patriots, who won six Super Bowls and missed the playoffs only twice from 2001 to 2019.

But five years before Belichick and Brady began their reign in Foxborough, Bill Parcells, Drew Bledsoe, and Curtis Martin led perhaps the most forgotten conference champion in NFL history.

The Big Tuna restores the Patriots to respectability

Believe it or not, there was a point in history where the New England Patriots were the laughingstock of the NFL, and that period was the early 1990s. From 1990 to 1992, the Patriots managed only nine wins in three seasons, including a miserable 1-15 finish in 1990.

In 1993, New England lured former Giants head coach Bill Parcells out of retirement to lead the Patriots to respectability. In his second season, New England won a wild-card playoff berth with the help of number-one draft choice quarterback Drew Bledsoe. The Patriots lost their first-round playoff game to the Cleveland Browns, who, ironically, were coached by none other than Bill Belichick.

While things seemed to look rosy in Foxborough, the following year was a disappointment. The Patriots finished 6-10 and missed the postseason entirely. Early on, the 1996 season looked to be more of the same, as they lost their first two games.

The Patriots got hot at the right time

Following their week two loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots caught fire with a 31-0 victory over the Arizona Cardinals and never looked back. The true star of their offense was second-year running back Curtis Martin, who rushed for 1,152 yards and 14 touchdowns. The Patriots’ offense put up the second-most points in the NFL and won 11 of their last 14 games, finishing with a 22-point comeback win over the New York Giants.

Patriots head coach Bill Parcells
Patriots coach Bill Parcells breaks into a rare grin | Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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New England’s 11-5 record gave them their first division title since 1986 and a first-round playoff bye. After rolling over the Steelers in their first playoff game, the Patriots had the good fortune to host the AFC Championship the following week. Their opponents, Jacksonville, had nicely eliminated the top-seeded Denver Broncos in the other divisional playoff game.

Unfortunately, the Jaguars had run out of magic. New England clinched their second-ever Super Bowl trip with a 47-yard Otis Smith fumble return for a touchdown with 2:34 left. Six years after losing fifteen games, these unremarkable New England Patriots could win the franchise’s first championship. But they ran into a buzzsaw called the Green Bay Packers.

New England took a 14-10 lead in the first quarter after falling behind 10-0. That was as good as it got for the Patriots. Drew Bledsoe and the offense were shaky from the second quarter out, throwing four interceptions and allowing four sacks. Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return touchdown in the third quarter sealed a 35-21 Packers win.

The Patriots would have to wait five years for their first Super Bowl title.

What happened to the 1996 Patriots?

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Super Bowl XXXI would be Bill Parcells’ final game as head coach of the New England Patriots. He had feuded with team owner Robert Kraft over control of personnel decisions, a feud he obviously lost. The following season, Parcells took the same role with the New York Jets.

“They want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries,” said Parcells upon announcing his departure.

Ten players from the 1996 Patriots’ roster would play for the 2001 team that won Super Bowl XXXVI: quarterback Drew Bledsoe, wide receiver Troy Brown, linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Ted Johnson, cornerback Ty Law, defensive end Willie McGinest, safety Lawyer Milloy, linebacker Marty Moore, cornerback Otis Smith, and kicker Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri is the last remaining active NFL player from the 1990s. Although he did not play for a team during the 2020 season, he has technically not retired.

In an odd coincidence, the Patriots’ first three Super Bowl appearances all took place at the Superdome in New Orleans. In addition to the Super Bowl XXXI loss and their dramatic Super Bowl XXXVI victory, New England also suffered their embarrassing Super Bowl XX defeat to the Chicago Bears in that very same venue.

Stats provided by Pro-Football-Reference.