Over the course of a decade, there have been many memorable and great NFL games. Super Bowls, playoff upsets, and even some historic regular season meetings that were about more than a win or a loss. In looking back at the decade I can only think of one NFL game that meant more to the decade than any other. It wasn’t a Super Bowl, nor was it even a conference playoff game. When you think of all of the NFL games played in the last ten years, I can’t think of a game with more ramifications and controversy over the decade than the infamous “Tuck Rule Game.”
It was a cold, snowy night in Massachusetts on January 19, 2002. An AFC divisional playoff game between the underdog New England Patriots and the Super Bowl favorite Oakland Raiders would change the course of history. The blizzard conditions of Foxboro Stadium already made turned this game into a classic before the dreaded “tuck play.” Trailing by three with less than two minutes to play, an unknown quarterback named Tom Brady would forever become engrained in NFL history.
[adinserter block=”1″]Coming into the game, the Raiders were heavy favorites. Under Jon Gruden, the Raiders offense led by Rich Gannon was arguably the best in the NFL. The Patriots were a fun team to watch, yet nobody took them seriously. Tom Brady was a sixth-round draft pick who took the starting job due to an injury to quarterback Drew Bledsoe. Bill Belichick was the failed coach with the Cleveland Browns, while Gruden was the whiz-kid offensive mastermind credited with turning the dark days of Oakland around. The stage was set for a Raiders win as NFL fans were counting the days down to a Super Bowl matchup between the reigning Super Bowl champs the St. Louis Rams and the Oakland Raiders in an offensive showcase. This all looked like a formality until Walt Coleman reversed a call that would have likely sealed the Super Bowl showcase.
Tom Brady was driving the Patriots down the field with under two minutes to go and down by three points. The Patriots had cut into the Raiders 7-0 halftime lead and were a slightly out of field goal range for the win. Tuck rule or not, this was already a game that would be remembered for the millions like me who watched it live. The hopes of Patriots fans came crashing down when Brady fumbled the ball after being hit by Charles Woodson. The fumble was recovered by Greg Biekert and the Raiders had the ball and an inevitable win. However, an overlooked new rule instituted in 1999 was cited by referee Walt Coleman that changed the course of history for the decade.
In 1999 NFL Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2 was written into NFL law. The rule states – When [an offensive] player is holding the ball to pass it forward, any intentional forward movement of his arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body. Also, if the player has tucked the ball into his body and then loses possession, it is a fumble. – Wiki.
Coleman concluded that since Brady’s arm was moving forward as he fumbled the ball, that in essence Brady was tucking the ball during the play. The Patriots got the ball back. Brady performed his first of many postseason clutch plays, getting the Pats to the 29-yard line of Oakland on a 13-yard pass to forgotten New England hero David Patten. Adam Vinatieri subsequently came onto the field and kicked one of the most memorable 45-yard field goals in NFL history to tie the game. The kick was so memorable due to the windy and snowy conditions at the time of the kick.
The score tied the game and the Pats would win on their first drive in overtime. A Vinatieri 23-yard field goal ended the game and changed the course of NFL history for the decade. The Patriots would go on to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC title the following week in Pittsburgh, and later beat the St. Louis Rams in one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history.
What made this game so important to NFL history? For one, the Patriots would have likely lost the game without the reversed fumble. The dynasty of the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady New England Patriots would have one less Super Bowl. Who knows if the Patriots would have ever been back to the Super Bowl? It is entirely conceivable that Tom Brady never starts another game for the Patriots. It is also entirely conceivable that Bill Belichick never wins a Super Bowl in New England, is replaced, the team is diced, and New England falls back into years of mediocrity. The futures of the most accomplished quarterback, coach, and franchise of the decade may have never been realized if not for the “tuck rule.”
[adinserter block=”2″]The game also had tremendous impact on the entire NFL. For one, the Oakland Raiders we see today may have never existed. Who knows how things played out if the Raiders went to the Super Bowl? The chances are pretty good that Jon Gruden may have never left the team and thus the futures of Oakland, Tampa Bay, and hundreds of players were impacted. There would be no Manning-Brady rivalry or talk as the decade closes. Peyton Manning would be the hands-down greatest NFL quarterback of the decade. Maybe Pittsburgh wins in 2000 and the destiny of the Steelers change? Maybe great players like Randy Moss never get to play in the Super Bowl? Maybe the Miami Dolphins remain the only team to go undefeated throughout the regular season? Maybe the Indianapolis Colts do it sooner? Maybe Rich Gannon retires as an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback? Maybe the Philadelphia Eagles win in 2004 against someone else? Maybe Kurt Warner wins two Super Bowls in a row and it is the St. Louis Rams that are franchise of the decade and not the Patriots? Maybe just maybe, NFL history changes for everyone.
The bottom line here is that there is no other game in the last ten years that has impacted NFL history more than the AFC 2002 divisional title game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders. The irony of this is that it wasn’t even a Super Bowl that impacted the NFL as much as a second-round playoff game. Let’s not forget the year and the meaning that a team entitled “Patriots” meant to America in going and winning the Super Bowl. For all of these reasons and more, the “tuck game” more than any other is the most memorable NFL game of the decade.
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