Playoff showdowns between the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders are known for controversy -- for crazy and contentious happenings.
First was 1976, when a questionable "roughing the passer" call on the Patriots' Ray Hamilton late in the fourth quarter helped the Raiders go on to score a touchdown, take the game and eventually win the Super Bowl.
Then came January 20, 2002, again in Foxboro.
The field is a sheet of white powder. Snow has fallen all afternoon and evening on the Patriots and Raiders during their AFC divisional playoff showdown -- a relentless snowfall with swirling winds and 25-degree temperatures. As the game heads into the fourth quarter, with the Raiders leading, 13-3, the players are slipping and sliding all over the field.
Somehow, in his first NFL postseason start, Patriots' second-year quarterback Tom Brady -- who took over for injured veteran Drew Bledsoe earlier in the season -- throws nine consecutive completions to take the Patriots on a scintillating 67-yard drive, which he caps with a six-yard scamper into the end zone to slice the Raiders' lead to 13-10. The Raiders are unable to move the ball against the stout New England defense, and with less than two minutes left, Brady begins moving the Pats downfield again.
With 1:50 left, Brady fades back to pass in Oakland territory. He pump-fakes, then pulls the ball back. At that precise moment, he is hit and sacked by blitzing cornerback Charles Woodson. The ball comes loose and Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert flops on it for the recovery.
The teams react as if it is a fumble. The Raiders rejoice, knowing all they have to do was run out the clock in order to advance to the AFC title game. The Patriots' offense, meanwhile, trudges off the field, out of timeouts and as good as defeated with 1:43 remaining.
But replay official Rex Stuart calls for a review of the play, which is his prerogative in the final two minutes of play. The replay shows that Brady started to throw the ball but, when he felt Woodson coming on, he changed his mind, bringing his throwing arm down and tucking the ball, as if to run or to protect the ball. From some camera angles, Brady's left hand is seen touching the ball, signaling his possible intent to run.
On the Patriots' sideline, Brady peers at the giant video screen at the south end of the stadium, hoping for a miracle. If referee Walter Coleman rules that the call stands as a fumble, the Patriots' season is over.
As the crowd of 60,292 falls silent, Brady stands stoically on the sideline, looking carefully at the replay, which clearly illustrates, at least in his mind, that the play will be reversed. After Coleman dissects Brady's throwing motion under the cloak of the replay screen, he walks to the middle of the field and announces, "The quarterback's arm . . . was coming forward . . . "
The rest of his announcement is drowned out by the thunderous roar of the crowd. With the call on the field overruled and declared an incomplete pass, the Patriots rejoice and the Raiders' collective jaw drops. Brady excitedly runs toward offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, shouting, "What play do you want to run?"
The statute Coleman has relied on is Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2 of the NFL rule book, which states that "any intentional forward movement of [the thrower's] 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."
Long-time Patriot employees and fans can only think of 1976, when the "roughing the passer" call ended the season of their dreams. And on this evening in New England, the drive continues as Brady marches the Patriots downfield, setting up a game-tying 45-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri with 27 seconds left in regulation in some of the worst conditions possible -- clock ticking down, snow swirling, no time to even clear a spot off to kick the ball.
Then, to the joy of New England, the Patriots take the overtime kickoff and move straight downfield in a no-huddle offense without a hitch and win, 16-13, on another brilliant drive by Brady, who completes all six of his passes on the drive, and another field goal by Vinatieri.
After the game, Oakland's locker room is solemn. There is anger, sadness and bitterness. Woodson reacts heatedly, telling reporters afterwards, "It never should have been overturned." Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice says: "We had one taken away from us." Oakland linebacker William Thomas barks, "We didn't lose this game. It was stolen from us."
Meanwhile, Coleman explains his rationale on the call reversal to the media. "When I got over to the replay monitor and looked, it was obvious that Brady's arm was coming forward, he was trying to tuck the ball, and they just knocked it out of his hand. His hand was coming forward, which makes it an incomplete pass."
Mike Pereira, the NFL's supervisor of officiating, later tells the press that under the league's "tuck rule," Brady is still in his throwing motion, even though it appears he is trying to pull the ball back to reload or take a sack.
Under the tuck rule, "any time you're tucking the ball back toward your body, it's an incomplete pass," Pereira tells the media. "I may agree that Brady was not trying to throw the ball. . . . As he starts to bring it down, it hits his hand. He never controlled it long enough to consider him a runner. . . . If he brought it all the way in and the ball came to his side and he was hit, then it's a fumble. He didn't become a runner, nor did he recock" to throw a second time.
Pereira claims he knew immediately, while watching the play live, that it was an incomplete pass. "I knew it would be reversed," he tells the press. "When I saw the first replay, I had no question in my mind. . . . I was surprised it wasn't called that way on the field."
Coleman says that if Brady had tucked the ball away after attempting the pass, it would have been a fumble. But Coleman says that Brady was still in his motion. "He has to get it all the way tucked back in order for it to be a fumble," he tells the press.
Meanwhile, a wild celebration takes place in New England, a celebration that would be repeated two more times in the next three weeks as the Patriots would go on to win the AFC Championship and then upset the Rams in the Super Bowl.