1 Sep 1996: Quarterback Drew Bledsoe #11 of the New England Patriots hangs onto the football as he is hit and surrounded by defensive players from the Miami Dolphins lead by lineman Daniel Stubbs #96 and Steve Emtman #94. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Riding another three-game heater, the Pats visited the defending champion Dallas Cowboys for Week 16. They sacked quarterback Troy Aikman three times in the first half, and Law added two picks. Neither team found the end zone, with Dallas prevailing 12-6 in a field goal battle.
“To tell the story of the ‘96 team,” says Johnson, “that was a very important game. It was the quintessential moral victory. They didn’t score a touchdown.”
Milloy recalls a moment of clarity when matched up against Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.
“Back-to-back plays, he came up the middle. The first time was a solid hit, but I felt like I could do better. I was like, ‘I know that’s Emmitt Smith; I know I’ve got all his cards, but if he comes through the hole again, I’ve got to smack him.’ The next play basically looked identical – the tackles looked identical – but that time, I got up and he didn’t. They came out and got him.”
“I’m not saying I was the reason why,” Milloy laughs, “but that was the result. That’s when I knew I was built for that.”
“It was one of my best games as a pro,” says Johnson. “I remember Ty Law locked down Michael Irvin. Don’t forget Adam Vinatieri chasing down Herschel Walker! We kept Dallas out of the end zone and our defense felt like we had something pretty special after that game. Even with a loss. In a weird way, for our defense, that was a pivotal point. We knew we went toe-to-toe with the Dallas Cowboys.”
“They brought out the best of us in our preparation the week before,” Milloy recalls. “We were a bunch of young guys. We just said ‘F*** it. We know that’s the Cowboys. Let’s go out there and ball.’
The Pats still needed a win in the season’s final week to secure the division, and to do so, they’d need another comeback. Rallying from a 19-point fourth quarter deficit, they faced fourth down from the Giants 13 with 1:23 left. Bledsoe threw to an open Coates at the 2-yard line. The burly tight end made the catch, pivoted and carried half of the Giants defense with him into the end zone.
New England prevailed, 23-22.
The AFC East champion Patriots could put some popcorn in the microwave and pull up a seat on the couch for Wild Card Weekend. What’s more, they were about to get an ever bigger break.
Click here to revisit part one.