Bob Kraft loves Saturday nights in Foxborough. Kraft is chairman of the NFL’s all-powerful Broadcast Committee and enjoys seeing his team showcased in the prime-time slot on Saturday night. Maybe it goes back to that rockin’ old tune by Kraft’s buddy, Elton John: “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).’’
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Live from Foxborough . . . It’s Saturday night!
Tonight’s playoff joust with the Indianapolis Colts marks the sixth time in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era that the Patriots have hosted a playoff game on a Saturday night. They are 5-0 in those games, and a couple of them — the first two in particular — were memorable.
1. Jan. 19, 2002. Patriots 16, Raiders 13 (overtime). You might remember this one. It was the last game played at the old Foxboro (Sullivan/Schaefer) Stadium, and it’s the game that launched the legends of Belichick, Tom Brady, and Walt Coleman.
In blizzard conditions, the Patriots trailed, 13-10, with less than two minutes remaining and appeared to have lost when Brady fumbled as he was sacked by Charles Woodson. The play, however, was reviewed. Referee Coleman invoked the little-known “Tuck Rule,’’ and called it an incomplete pass, which gave the Patriots new life.
Brady moved his team into position for a 45-yard field goal attempt by Adam Vinatieri — the greatest clutch kick in NFL history. Drilling a rock-hard football through the snow, “Varitek split the uprights” (Mayor Menino joke there) and sent the game into overtime.
The Patriots won on a 23-yard field goal by Vinatieri, and we saw long snapper Lonie Paxton making snow angels in the end zone.
None of it would happen today. Ask Jon Gruden (coach of the Raiders in 2002). The Tuck Rule is gone and the overtime rules have changed, but this forever will be the greatest Saturday night football game in New England history.
2. Jan. 10, 2004. Patriots 17, Titans 14. This was the coldest game in Patriots history. It was 4 degrees at kickoff with a wind chill of minus-10. It was the pivotal victory in New England’s march to its second Super Bowl title in three seasons.
The game was won, again, on a 46-yard field goal by Vinatieri with 4:06 remaining. A key play setting up the kick was a fourth-and-3 pass from Brady to Troy Brown for 4 yards. The quarterback for the Titans was the late Steve McNair. Brady still says it’s the coldest night he ever played in Foxborough.
3. Jan. 7, 2006. Patriots 28, Jaguars 3. Ho-hum. This was the end of the golden era of invincibility. This was Vinatieri’s last appearance as a Patriot in Foxborough (you’ll see him again Saturday night), and the easy victory improved Belichick and Brady to 10-0 in playoff games with the Patriots.
New England became the first team in NFL history to win 10 consecutive playoff games. The matchup was skillfully orchestrated by Belichick in the final weekend of the regular season. A victory over the Dolphins would have forced the Patriots to play their first playoff game against the formidable Steelers (who went on to win the Super Bowl a month later).
By losing to the Dolphins (remember backup quarterback Matt Cassel throwing a conversion pass to the Patriots cheerleaders?), the Patriots got the Jaguars. That’s what I call good tanking.
The Jaguars were coached by Jack Del Rio and quarterbacked by Byron Leftwich. A Tomato Can Special. It doesn’t get any easier. When it was over, Belichick said, “A good night for our football team. Solid effort in all three phases.’’
A week later, Champ Bailey jumped the route and the Broncos stunned New England at Mile High Stadium.
4. Jan. 12, 2008. Patriots 31, Jaguars 20. This was victory No. 17 on the way to 18-0. Brady completed 26 of 28 passes (yes, 26 of 28) on an unseasonably warm evening (44 degrees).
This one had a few red flags, suggesting perhaps that the 2007 Patriots had already played their best football. It was 14-14 deep into the second half. Stephen Gostkowski missed a 35-yard field goal attempt and the defense couldn’t get off the field when David Garrard, of all people, drove the Jaguars 95 yards for a touchdown.
5. Jan. 14, 2012. Patriots 45, Broncos 10. Beating a Tim Tebow-quarterbacked, 8-8 team that had been outscored during the regular season, the Patriots became the only NFL team to get to a conference championship without beating a plus-.500 team all season.
Brady threw six touchdown passes (three to Rob Gronkowski) and boomed a 48-yard punt. It was 35-7 at halftime and 42-7 early in the third.
Tebow ran for 13 yards and was sacked five times, disappointing correspondents from Time, People, GQ, and the New Yorker, all of whom were dispatched to Gillette to see if Tebow could turn water into wine.
Trailing, 42-7, with 2:19 left in the third, Broncos coach John Fox went for a 41-yard field goal. That’s the same John Fox who will be on the other sideline next weekend when the Patriots play the Broncos for the AFC Championship.