Patriots: 25 Days celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1996 AFC title – Day 15

We’ve had mostly positive things to reminisce about during our 25 day project, but today we take a look at a 12-6 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys on December 15, 1996.

The score wasn’t pretty, but it was a very important day confidence wise for the young defense and coordinator Al Groh.

At the time, the Patriots’ offense was humming while Dallas entered as the NFL’s top defense and with good reason. Deion Sanders, Tony Casillas and Darren Woodson just to name a few were all in the absolute prime of their careers. Offensively we all know the names. Troy Aikman, Emmit Smith, Michael Irvin, Daryl Johnston, Kevin Williams and Nate Newton. It was a video game roster before Madden had even become a real phenomenon.

New England and Dallas combined for just 530 yards of total offense. Ty Law picked off Aikman (169 yards) twice, but Woodson (2) and Roger Harper had three interceptions against Drew Bledsoe (178 yards). Curtis Martin ran the ball 20 times for 91 yards but never found the end zone. Smith had 27 carries for 85 yards but also never found pay dirt. In the battle of top wideouts, Terry Glenn was targeted 15 times and caught eight of them for 83 yards. Irvin was targeted 10 times and caught six balls for 76 yards.

Stunningly, the Patriots’ offensive line didn’t give up a single sack against the ferocious Dallas defense on the day while Willie McGinest and Chris Slade each had a solo sack. Ferric Collins and Dwayne Sabb combined for a sack on Aikman as well. The numbers that may tell the story the most from that game are those from the punting department. Tom Tupa had three for 113 yards while John Jett had four totaling a ridiculous 183 yards, an average of 45.8 yards per punt. Herschel Walker did have two kick returns for a total of 89 yards as well, so needless to say field position was key.

In an unexpected battle of the defense and kickers, it was Adam Vinatieri and Chris Boniol providing all the points. Vinatieri put the Patriots up 6-0 in the first with kicks of 21 and 30 yards, but Dallas made it a 6-6 game heading into halftime with field goals of 23 and 36 yards.

The Cowboys took the lead for good on a 35-yard field goal with 7:26 left in the third. Bledsoe threw n interception two plays later and Dallas made it hurt, booting another 29-yard field goal that made it 12-6 with 4:58 left in the third.

The teams traded possessions until the Patriots took over at their own 18 with 2:33 remaining and a chance to drive downfield for a potential game winning drive. Instead, two plays in Woodson picked off a pass intended for Glenn and Emmit Smith iced the game with two runs before a couple kneel downs from Aikman.

“Thank God for our defense,” Dallas coach Barry Switzer said to the media after the game. “The offense hasn’t played well all year and we had to (rely on) our defense.”

The loss in Dallas was a statement by the Patriots’ defense too in front of a nationally televised audience on NBC. It was also the last time New England would lose until the Super Bowl. Check back tomorrow for Day 16 of our of 25 days celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1996 AFC champions.