The NFL is replete with numerous teams over the years who have had good starts to a season, and bad endings to the same season.
But perhaps none of those “Best of Times, Worst of Times” seasons can compare to what the New England Patriots had to deal with in 1974. The Patriots of 1974 were saddled with the toughest schedule of any of the (then) 26 teams in the NFL. The teams on their 1974 slate averaged over eight wins during the previous year.
Moreover, the Patriots had to play five playoff teams from 1973 in their 1974 season, and that did not count for the Miami Dolphins, who the Patriots had to play twice in 1974.
The New England Patriots 1974 Season Begins
There were a lot of cards stacked against 2nd-year head coach Chuck Fairbanks as his team entered the 1974 regular season. But that did not matter, especially during the first half of that season. It was almost as if that deck of cards was split right in half, with the beginning of their season producing incredibly successful and unexpected results.
The Patriots pulled a shocking surprise in their opening game versus the defending World Champion Miami Dolphins. New England’s 34-24 upset over their division rivals at Schaeffer Stadium was looked upon by most NFL experts as more of a fluke than anything else.
New England proved that such was not the case during the next four weeks, as they built up a 5-0 start to the 1974 season.
Successive victories over the New York Giants at the Yale Bowl by a modest score of 28-20 did little to prepare anyone for what was to occur the following week when the Patriots took on the powerhouse Los Angeles Rams.
Back in that year, when you held the defending NFC West champion to just two touchdowns, you were making a statement. That is exactly what New England did in their 20-14 win, and those fans who felt that this Pats team was a fluke, were gradually seeing the error of their thoughts.
Keeping It Going
In the next two weeks, Coach Fairbanks’ team routed the Baltimore Colts, 42-3, and the New York Jets, 24-0. New England was on top of the AFC East, something that nobody could have predicted at the onset of the 1974 season. But despite this fact, a troublesome truth befell the Patriots, a problem that seemed to inhabit all rosters across the league.
That distinct problem was injuries. And not just any injuries mind you, but injuries to several key players. Starting wide receivers Darryl Stingley and Randy Vataha would both be sidelined for their week six-game, a grudge match against a division rival, the 4-1 Buffalo Bills. New England’s offense showed their faults for the first time of the year in their 30-28 loss to the eventual AFC Wild Card winning Bills. The AFC East was now tied between the two teams at 5-1.
Championship teams all throughout league history can often be distinguished from the other “also-ran” teams by their ability to bounce back from a tough defeat. This the Patriots did in a noticeably big way in their week seven game up in Minnesota. The Vikings were the defending NFC Champions, and their defense was legendary during the early to mid-1970s. The Patriots, however, displayed a come-from-behind character in this game.
New England quarterback Jim Plunkett hit tight end, Bob Windsor, on the last play of the game for a touchdown.
Windsor’s 1974 season was ended by his score, as he fractured his leg trying to stretch across the goal line.
The Patriots prevailed, 17-14, improving their record to 6-1 at the schedule’s halfway point.
The Bottom Fell Out
Then the bottom fell out in New England.
Buffalo came into Foxboro, Massachusetts, and the Pats were smarting for some payback from their loss to the Bills just two weeks previously. That did not happen, however. Buffalo once again made enough key plays, especially at the end of the game, to post a 29-28 victory. It would be the Bills, not the Patriots, who would advance into the AFC Playoffs as the conference’s Wild Card team.
New England’s downward spiral during the second half of the season included bitter losses to the Cleveland Browns, the New York Jets, the Oakland Raiders, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Miami Dolphins. While losing to the Raiders, Steelers, and Dolphins was certainly excusable, falling to the mediocre (at best) Browns and Jets was not.
The result was what most experts predicted for them at the beginning of the year when the word “fluke” was heard from many stations. From an incredible start to the 1974 season to a miserable ending, the Patriots took a ride on a seesaw. They finished this “Best of Times, Worst of Times” year with a 7-7 record.
Host and Author of Pigskin Past - Joe Zagorski
Throughout his days, Joe spent some time as a sportswriter and has been a member of the Pro Football Researchers Association since the mid-1980s. Joe is also a proud member of the Pro Football Writers of America.
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