New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) loses the ball after being brought down by Oakland Raiders’ Charles Woodson, right, while Greg Biekert (54) moves to recover the ball during the fourth quarter of an AFC Divisional Playoff game in Foxboro, Mass., on Jan. 19, 2002. The play was appealed, and the Patriots retained possession. The Patriots went on to win, 16-13, in overtime. AP file photo

Editor’s note: During the coming weeks, Sun Journal staff writer Randy Whitehouse will count down the New England Patriots’ top five playoff wins of the past 20 years — in other words, the Tom Brady Era. No. 3 on the list is the Patriots’ 16-13 overtime win over the Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoffs on Jan. 19, 2002.

It’s one of those sports moments you remember where you were when…

New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri is hoisted by his teammates as they celebrate his winning field goal in overtime against the Oakland Raiders in their AFC Divisional Playoff game in Foxboro, Mass., on Jan. 19, 2002. The Patriots won, 16-13. AP file photo

The moment Adam Vinatieri’s 45-yard field goal sailed through the snow and the uprights with 27 seconds left in regulation of the Patriots’ AFC Divisional playoff win over the Oakland Raiders, I was on my hands and knees in my living room, nose practically pressed up against my (still low-def) television. I had no idea whether it was good or not until the officials standing beneath the crossbar raised their hands.

It’s been more than 18 years and I’ve probably watched the replay 10,000 times and I still can’t locate the ball at any point in the dark, dense collage of falling snow and the fans behind the uprights. Granted, I have the eyesight of a 110-year-old cyclops with cataracts and a migraine, but I always lose the ball in mid-flight. If not for CBS’ subsequent replay showing the kick from below the crossbar, part of me would still doubt it actually went through.

A game that made Adam Vinatieri a legend in New England and gave Patriots fans their first taste of the magical Brady/Belichick partnership is best remembered for an obscure rule. But any time someone mentions it, the first thought is of me on floor wondering, for seemingly an eternity, whether the kick had enough leg. Were I Catholic, it’s probably how I would imagine purgatory. Not bad for No. 3 on our Patriots Playoff Countdown.

THE PATRIOTS

Remember when the Patriots were the beloved underdog and not the evil empire?

We in New England like to remember the Patriots as plucky underdogs throughout the 2001 regular season and subsequent playoff run. But before this game, they were still essentially irrelevant nationally. No one thought they were going to be a factor in the playoffs. They were three-point favorites at home against the Raiders, which essentially means Las Vegas saw the game as a toss-up. The Raiders themselves and the No. 1 seed in the AFC, the Steelers, were the teams everyone thought would ultimately challenge the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.

Even though they had won six in a row heading into the playoffs, the Patriots were still flying way below the radar. The defense was respected because Bill Belichick was still known more for being a defensive genius than anything, but the likes of Ty Law, Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel hadn’t made names for themselves yet, and Richard Seymour was still a rookie.

Troy Brown was the closest thing the Patriots had to a star on a low-risk offense directed by a second-year quarterback. Although Belichick had made it clear he was sticking with Tom Brady for the rest of the season, many in and out of New England were convinced the only chance they had of going anywhere would be with Drew Bledsoe back in the starting lineup.

And Vinatieri’s claim to fame was still as the kicker who once chased Herschel Walker down.

THE OPPONENT

The Raiders are a remarkably proud and pathetic franchise. Their legendary owner, Al Davis, built the organization with the best winning percentage in all of sports over two decades (1970-1990). He had a vital role in the AFL merging with the NFL, and he was a pioneer in integrating African-Americans at all levels of football, most notably with the hiring of Art Shell as head coach in 1989.

New England Patriots’ Adam Vinatieri (4) kicks a field goal against the Oakland Raiders as teammate Ken Walter holds the ball, in Foxboro, Mass., on Jan. 19, 2002. AP file photo

But believe it or not, the Raiders were widely regarded as whiny little crybabies even before anyone had heard of the Tuck Rule.

Another of Davis’ admirable qualities was his eagerness to take on the NFL, but it also came with a martyr complex that would make your mother-in-law jealous.

No matter when or how they lost, the Raiders always had an excuse. Davis complained for years about his team annually being among the most penalized teams in the league (never mind this is an organization that took immense public pride in the cheap shots they delivered on the field). To this day, they cry about the field being too icy when they lost to the Steelers in the 1975 AFC Championship. They whine about Jon Gruden, as coach of the Buccaneers, knowing all of their plays the following year in Super Bowl XXXVII. Next December, they’ll complain about Las Vegas being too hot. It’s what they do. “Just Whine Baby.”

FRANCHISE/NFL IMPACT

Usually included in the Raiders’ yowling about this game is how they were “robbed” of going to another Super Bowl by the Tuck Rule.

They were a talented team, no doubt. They hosted the AFC Championship the year before (they lost to the Ravens, probably because Ray Lewis stabbed an usher or something). They made the Super Bowl the following year, even though Gruden left, with much the same roster. They had a future MVP at quarterback in Rich Gannon throwing to two future Hall-of-Famers, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown. But they were 10-6 in a bad AFC West in 2001. One could conclude that not only wouldn’t have they gotten through Pittsburgh the following week, they wouldn’t have had the motivation to become the AFC champions the following year without referee Walt Coleman’s help.

As for the Patriots, while many remember this game as the start of the dynasty, I’m more inclined to think of it as the end of an era.

New England made its last game at Foxboro/Sullivan/Schaefer Stadium perhaps the most famous in franchise history. That’s rather fitting because the stadium and the franchise were alike in a lot of ways.

About 18 years ago, NFL Films made a cool feature about the irony that the stadium, which was the type of facility a Single-A baseball franchise would play in if football had Single-A, went out on top. I highly recommend it to anyone under 25 years old because it’s probably the easiest and best way to appreciate what it was like to be a Patriots fan before 2001.

SIGNATURE PLAY

Vinatieri made the most famous kick in NFL history in this game, but it’s still overshadowed by the Tuck Rule, a dumb rule interpreted and enforced correctly.

Yep, the Tuck Rule was legit, on the books and already used in multiple NFL games in 2001, including against the Patriots in the game against the Jets that is better known for Brady replacing an injured Drew Bledsoe. Coleman didn’t make it up on the spot. NFL bigwigs didn’t call down to the field and instruct him to find a way to get the Patriots the ball back after Charles Woodson seemingly forced Brady to fumble on a corner blitz. Raiders fans insist that the replay shows Brady fumbled the ball but what it actually shows is Brady was still technically in the process of his throwing motion, which, by the definition of the rule, would not and should not be called a fumble.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady prepares to pass against the Oakland Raiders during their snowy AFC Divisional playoff game in Foxboro, Mass., on Jan. 19, 2002. Brady passed for 312 yards and ran for a touchdown in the Patriots’ 16-13 overtime victory. AP file photo

Dumb rule? Absolutely. The NFL has a thing for dumb rules so it kept the Tuck Rule around for another 12 years. That’s how dumb it was. But it was a rule.

Raiders fans being Raiders fans, they don’t want the rules enforced, which is why they completely ignore the illegal blow to the head Woodson delivers when he hits Brady. Had that been called, nothing else that happened on that play would have mattered.

Besides, the Raiders owed the Patriots one after Ben Dreith called Ray Hamilton for roughing Ken Stabler in the 1976 playoffs.

MOST UNDERRATED PLAY

The Raiders could have saved themselves and everyone else a lot of moaning and groaning if they’d just converted a third-and-1 with a little over two minutes left. Instead, Seymour and company stuffed Charlie Garner for no gain and forced a punt. Brown fumbled at the end of his return of that punt but Larry Izzo miraculously recovered it for the Patriots. David Patten and Jermaine Wiggins made oodles of clutch catches the rest of the way. But all of that is forgotten because the Raiders still believe their own hype.

UP NEXT

28-3.

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