New England Patriots Super Bowl Champs

Looking Back: Patriots in the AFL

By Guest Columnist Michael Passanisi

Outside of soccer, ties in major pro sports are rare these days. The NHL, one of the final holdouts, has gone to an overtime followed by a shootout in the last few years. Even high school and college football now play until there is a winner.

Until 1974, however, ties in the NFL were a fairly common occurrence. In that year the league instituted an overtime period beginning with a coin toss and playing an extra period. With the proliferations of offenses, however, ties in the NFL are very rare. Since ’74, there have been only 17 tie games, just 4 since 1989. The last tie game was between the Eagles and Bengals in 2009, which ended 13-13. Incidentally, Philly QB Donovan McNabb admitted after the game that he did not know games could end in ties.

The team now known as the New England Patriots has never had a tie. However, their predecessors, the Boston Patriots, played to 8 ties, all between 1961 and 1967. In 1966, they had two deadlocks.

The old saying is that a tie “is like kissing your sister.” However, that is an oversimplification. The reaction to ties by players and fans alike was extremely variable. However, in at least two cases, ties robbed the Pats of the AFL East title.

Tie games in football seemed to fall into two categories: games when one team rallied form far behind to knot the score, and “back and forth” ties, which stayed close. Often they were decided on the last play of the game with a TD or field goal. The first Patriot tie occurred on October 13, 1961, a 31-31 contest with the Houston Oilers.

The fact that it is a Friday the 13th is ironic-in those days the team played most of their home games on Friday nights at BU Field. The reason for that was that the Pats were competing with the New York Giants, who were on TV every Sunday and still were number 1 in the hearts of many New England football fans. It may seem strange today that New Englanders would root for any New York team, but the Giants were 1) on every Sunday for nearly 10 years before the Pats existed, and 2) had some very good teams with players like Frank Gifford, Andy Robustelli, and Sam Huff.

The tie cut two ways. It was Mike Holovak’s first game as Pats head coach, having replaced the fired Lou Saban a few days earlier. It was against the first-place Houston Oilers, making it a definitely positive performance. On the other hand, the deadlock was produced by a 25-yard George Blanda field goal with five seconds left. The Pats had gone ahead and apparently clinched it with a Butch Songin to Gino Cappelletti pass only 50 seconds earlier, but the Oilers moved down quickly. Writer John Ahern called the game “a dizzy romp.”

However, a tie against a top team seemed to ignite the squad and, operating on an unusual alternating-quarterback system (Songin and Babe Parilli), Holovak led the team to a 7-1 record the rest of the way to finish second in the division with a 9-4-1 mark. A win over the Oilers, however, would have put the Pats even with Houston and into a playoff for the AFL East championship (strangely, Houston was an East team.)

The craziest tie in Pats history occurred three years later at Fenway Park. The 43-43 deadlock with the Raiders is perhaps the highest scoring tie in pro football history, and it featured one of the best Patriot comebacks. They were down 34-14 in the third period before Parilli got hot and brought them back to a 43-40 lead in the final minutes. The ending was bittersweet, however, since it was produced by a Mike Mercer field goal with five seconds left and was made more disappointing by a pass interference call on the Pats secondary after a fourth down pass had fallen incomplete, apparently sealing the win. Parilli and the Raiders’ Cotton Davidson combined for 737 passing yards.

The tie hurt in other ways, too. At the end of the 64 season, the Patriots needed a win-not a win or tie- to beat out the Bills for the AFL East title. The deciding game was played at Fenway in a snowstorm. Early in the contest, the Pats trailed 7-0, but came back on a Parilli pass to tight end Tony Romeo. Knowing that a tie would not be good enough and given the weather conditions, Holovak went for two points. The receiver slipped on a piece of ice and the pass went incomplete. It was a bad omen as the Bills went on to a 24-14 victory and the division title.

The final tie in 1967 was also unusual-31-31 in San Diego. It was a “home away from home” game, since the Red Sox were in the World Series. It would have been a Boston victory except for three poor snaps from usually sure-handed center Jon Morris. One of these snaps cost Cappelletti a chip-shot field goal that would have won the game in the final minute. The team was already on its way down; they would finish with a 3-10-1 record.

With the enormous popularity of pro football today, it is not surprising that ties are basically a thing of the past. Fans and players alike want a resolution-not a “moral” victory or defeat. But we must not forget that ties are an important part of football history.

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