Now that Tom Brady has shown us his throwback resume, let’s flashback Friday to the Patriots-Raiders AFC divisional playoff game that took place on Dec. 18, 1976.
Roughing the passer.
Those three words are the sound of nails on a chalkboard for old-school Patriots fans who witnessed one of the most controversial games in NFL history in 1976. And it still feels like it happened yesterday.
In 1967, the Impossible Dream Red Sox changed baseball in Boston forever. During the country’s 200th anniversary celebration in ‘76, it was the beloved Cinderella Patriots who took a wild ride right into the postseason.
Coming off a 3-11 record in 1975, the '76 Pats rolled to an 11-3 record that included a 48-17 whooping of John Madden’s Raiders in the fourth game of the season in Foxborough.
The Patriots drew a rematch with the Raiders in the AFC divisional playoff game, but this time the showdown was taking place in Oakland – who hadn’t dropped a game since the October loss at Schaefer Stadium.
New England scored first when versatile running back Andy Johnson punched one in on a one-yard TD run early in the first quarter. On the drive, all-world tight end Russ Francis made an amazing one-handed catch on a 48 yard reception. But the Pats would go into the half trailing, 10-7.
In the third quarter, things were looking very good for the Sons of Chuck Fairbanks in the rowdy Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum after the Patriots scored twice to take command of the game. The Patriots first score of the quarter was an 80 yards drive that resulted in a 26-yard touchdown reception by Francis.
Five minutes later, a three-yard rushing TD by former Raider fullback Jess Phillips had the Patriots up 21-10 with 1:14 left in the third.
The Raiders closed the gap early in the fourth quarter on a one run by Mark van Eeghen, and nerves started rattling in living rooms across Patriot Nation with the score now 21-17 New England.
With 4:12 left in the game, Pats kicker John Smith missed low on a 50-yard field goal attempt and the Raiders were in perfect position for a comeback with the old veteran Kenny “The Snake” Stabler behind center. Stabler quickly drove the Raiders down the field, connecting with Oakland receiving legends Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch, then completing a 21-yard pass to sure-handed tight end Dave Casper.
On the next play, Patriots defensive end Mel Lunsford – who was drafted by the Raiders in ’72 – sacked Stabler for an eight yard loss and Pats fans were feeling pretty fancy with just 1:24 left to play.
Stabler misfired on the next two passes and the Raiders were faced with a third and 18 from their own 28 yard line. The Patriots were seemingly poised to pull off a playoff win in enemy territory.
The Snake then dropped back to pass and Patriots defensive tackle Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton came charging in on him. Hamilton got a piece of the ball on a pass intended for former Patriot halfback/kick returner Carl Garrett down at the goal line. Pass incomplete.
Game. Set. Match.
Not quite. The most horrible thing happened next. The most backbreaking, heartbreaking call you could imagine.
Referee Ben Dreith called a highly-questionable roughing-the-passer penalty on Hamilton that gave the Raiders new life. Dreith said Hamilton came down on Stabler with excessive force, which forced him to throw the flag.
“It goes incomplete on our sideline,” Patriots broadcaster Gil Santos told NFL Network in a look back at the game. “And then we see the flag. And then they call roughing the passer and I look at the replay and I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’”
Hamilton could not believe the call was going to be on the Patriots.
“I just figured that someone had held one of our guys,” Hamilton told NFL Network. “I just knew that’s what it was. It couldn’t have been anything else. I was totally shocked. It was just a phantom, bogus call.”
And the Raiders took advantage of it as Stabler snaked into the end zone behind guard Gene Upshaw to score the winning touchdown with 10 seconds remaining to advance by a final score of 24-21.
“With the Ray Hamilton penalty, we kind of lost our composure and they easily walked down the field,” Patriots Pro Bowl defensive back Mike Haynes would later admit.
Penalties were a factor all game, with the Raiders getting flagged 11 times for 93 yards, while the Patriots had 10 penalties for 83 yards. But the only call that mattered in the end was the roughing the passer infraction that cost them a chance to live another week.
“I seldom have walked away from a game with a feeling of anger and bitterness to equal the sensation that overcame me following the events of Dec. 18, 1976, when the New England Patriots had a playoff game stolen from them by the Oakland Raiders and by an officiating crew for whom there should be reserved a special place in athletic Hades…,” the Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote in 2002. “My conclusion was that the Patriots wuz robbed. I had seen a great injustice, and it bothered me. Worse yet, those damnable Al Davis Raiders went on to win that Super Bowl.”
The Globe’s Will McDonough caught up with Stabler in 2002 and The Snake admitted the call was lousy.
"That should have never been a penalty," Stabler told McDonough. "I got hit a lot worse than that in my career and it was never called. Hamilton just went for the ball and landed on me. That's all that happened."
Madden didn’t see it that way.
“If you could sit there for 60 minutes and say the officials turned that game around with penalties at the end, you were wasting your time,” Madden told reporters after the game. “You were eating a hot dog somewhere instead of watching what was going on. There was some great football out there.”
Dreith also stands by his dreadful call.
"You bet," Dreith told the Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont in 2002. "Roughing the passer. He got a piece of the ball, but he gave Stabler kind of a karate chop on the side of the head on the way down."
Dreith also spoke about the chaos after the game.
"I remember their coaches went after us, they chased us," recalled Dreith to the Globe. "The only guy who didn't do anything was [head coach Chuck] Fairbanks. They were going on about the tipped ball, all that, but that wasn't a factor."
What it was was an unfortunate end for a highly-talented Patriots team. Haynes, the rookie cornerback and punt returner, Francis, tackle Leon Gray, and the stalwart guard John Hannah, were all named to the Pro Bowl that year. Rookie Tim Fox was an instant force at safety. They had the league's second-best ground attack and rushed for nearly 3,000 yards on the season with the surprising Don Calhoun bouncing off opponents to gain more than 700 yards and Sam “Bam” Cunningham leaping into the end zone for TDs.
The Patriots-Raiders ’76 showdown would go down as one of the most disputable contests in NFL history.
Ten years later, the two teams would next meet again in the postseason when the Raiders were in Los Angeles The Patriots won the divisional playoff game 27-20 but it would be remembered by Raider linebacker Matt Millen whacking Pats GM Patrick Sullivan on the head with his helmet after Sullivan went onto the field after the game and started yelling at Raider defensive tackle and Charlestown native Howie Long. Good times.
The Patriots would get their final revenge on the Raiders for the ’76 Dreith debacle with the help of referee Walt Coleman in what would be known as The Tuck Rule Game -- or the Snow Bowl for nostalgic New Englanders. The legendary 2002 divisional playoff game was the most memorable to take place in Foxborough. And with the 16-13 dramatic Patriots win over the Raiders, the “Revenge for Ben Dreith” was complete, the ’76 Raider rip-off was finally avenged, and the Patriots were on their way to their first Super Bowl victory.