January 19th, 2002: The Night Of The Most Controversial Game-Changing Play In NFL History
T-U-C-K. It's a four-letter word you DON'T want to use around Raiders fans.
January 19th, 2002. I remember exactly where I was that night. I was where pretty much every sports fan in the CT/NY area was - Stuck inside at home during the middle of a treacherous snow-storm while watching what is considered the most controversial game-changing review in NFL history.
The 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders was to be the final game ever played at Foxboro Stadium as plans for a new stadium - Gillette Stadium - had already been completed. The winner of the game would move on to the championship round for a shot at the Super Bowl. Heading into the game Tom Brady was still "Drew Bledsoe's replacement". By the end of the game he was on his way to becoming an NFL legend.
My team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, were playing the following day against the Baltimore Ravens so I didn't have plans to watch the Pats/Raiders game all that intently. I was supposed to head out to either Hartford or New Haven with my friends as I did every Saturday night. I figured I'd watch the game at the bar while having a few beers and worry about the Steelers the next day. As the inches of snow piled higher and higher that evening it was eventually decided that nobody was leaving their homes that night. It was, for me, a rare Saturday night staying in. Little did I know how rare of a night it would be.
The first three quarters were already interesting enough to watch with the heavy snowfall covering the field. I think every football fan agrees that there is nothing like an NFL playoff game in the middle of a snow storm. The fourth quarter, however, went from a "fun to watch" game to downright compelling television. With 1:50 left in the game and the Patriots trailing 13-10 the Patriots had the ball and began driving down the field. It was 1st and 10 from the Raiders 42 when Brady dropped back to pass. While pumping the football, Brady was hit on his right side by Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson and the ball popped loose. The Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert recovered the ball and the fans at Foxboro suddenly went silent. Game over. Or so we thought.
Soon after the Raiders began celebrating, the referees began to gather together and talk. Never a good sign. It was decided that there was to be a review of the play. While it appeared that Brady had tucked the ball back towards his body, the referees were not sure and ruled it a fumble so they could review the play.
Just as the refs decided to review the play the Phil Collins song "In The Air Tonight" started pumping through the stadium speakers. An ominous sign of things to come. The game's broadcasters were Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms. A moment before Gumbel was heard saying the Raiders had "pretty much sealed an Oakland Raider victory" while Simms responded to the replay by saying, "I don't think there's much doubt Greg". Upon another look, however, Gumbel and Simms started taking on a doubtful tone. "Oooh. The question is did he pull it down," said Gumbel. "His arm was going forward but was he throwing the football?" Uh oh. Something was definitely in the air and it wasn't good for the Raiders. Seconds felt like hours. What is going on here? Why is this taking so long? It's a fumble guys. C'mon!
Finally, referee Walt Coleman turned on his mic and announced to the 60-thousand plus fans in the stadium and the millions of viewers watching at home, "After reviewing the play the quarterback's arm was going forward. It is an incomplete pass." The stadium went from a deathly silence to a deafening roar. What?! My jaw dropped in disbelief. Did I just hear the ref say it's not a fumble?
The Patriots capitalized. After a clearly dejected Tom Brady had just walked off the field thinking his season was over he was back driving his team down the field setting up an eventual Adam Vinatieri game-tying field goal. Vinatieri would kick another one through the uprights in overtime to seal a Patriots victory over the Raiders. New England proceeded to beat the Steelers the following week then went on to defeat the St. Louis Rams to become Super Bowl champions. They would go on to win four more Lombardi trophies. A dynasty had begun on that cold, wintry January night in 2002.
As for the Raiders, their head coach John Gruden was traded away to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a month later. Woodson and his fellow Raiders teammates are still adamant. They feel the NFL conspired to keep the silver and black down due to their owner Al Davis's checkered past with the league. Davis himself went to his grave believing the refs overturned the call just to stick it to him. As you'll hear them say in the NFL Films piece below it was a "conspiracy":
For those of you Patriots fans who would like to re-live this game you can watch it in its entirety below. If you're a Raiders fan, you'll probably want to pass. Personally, although I wish the Steelers could have taken down the Pats that following week I'm glad I can say I got to see one of the most controversial moments in NFL history as it happened. It's what makes NFL football so entertaining. You never know what will happen next.