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On This Date in Sports January 5, 1986: Pats Punch Out

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The New England Patriots stun the Los Angeles Raiders 27-20 at the LA Coliseum to advance to the AFC Championship Game for the first time in franchise history. The Raiders were their own worst enemy committing six turnovers, including a fumbled kickoff in their own end zone. After the game, Matt Millen of the Raiders punched out Patriots GM Pat Sullivan. Sullivan spent the entire game heckling Howie Long, leading Millen to step in and defend his teammate. The Patriots would go on to lose to the Chicago Bears 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. 

Tucked away in Foxboro, the New England Patriots had never had a fervent following. They had played in the AFL as the Boston Patriots but could never find a permanent home. They finally moved out to the suburbs in Foxborough, Massachuttes, in 1971 as they joined the NFL with the merger. The Patriots had a quiet existence in Foxboro as they became the New England Patriots to draw fans in from the entire region. Playoff appearances for the Patriots in 1976  as a Wild Card, the Patriots lost to the Oakland Raiders on a controversial play in the Divisional Round. The Raiders would go on to win Super Bowl XI. Two years later, in a preseason game, Jack Tatum paralyzed Patriots' receiver Darryl Stingley on a cheap shot, adding to feelings of ill-will between the Patriots and Raiders. In 1985, the Patriots led by Raymond Berry had a strong season, posting a record of 11-5 to get the second Wild Card in the AFC. The Patriots would down the New York Jets 26-14 in the Wild Card Game, earning their first postseason win and trip to the Divisional Round. 

The Los Angeles Raiders were a powerhouse in 1985. Two years removed from winning Super Bowl XVIII, the Raiders led by coach Tom Flores appeared to be on the verge of another trip to the big game after posted a 12-4 record and had the best record in the AFC. They had played the Patriots earlier in the season and won easily in Foxboro 35-20. 

In a sign of things to come, the Patriots, who were a heavy underdog, fell behind early when Fulton Walker muffed a punt. The Patriots took full advantage as Tony Eason connected with Lin Dawson on a 13-yard touchdown pass. The Patriots had a chance for more when Ronnie Lippett intercepted Marc Wilson. However, the Raiders' defense stiffened and kept New England from adding to the lead. Greg Townsend blocked a punt of Los Angeles, but the Raiders settled for a 29-yard field goal by Chris Bahr. 

Chris Bahr missed a 44-yard field goal in the second quarter, as the Raiders continued to seem out of sync. The Raiders' defense was starting to make headway, which helped turn the game in their favor. Fulton Walker made up for his earlier muff and had a big punt return that sparked a 52-yard scoring drive as Marc Wilson connected with Jessie Hester on a 16-yard touchdown pass. Following a fumble by Mosi Tatupu, the Raiders extended the lead to 17-7 as Marcus Allen galloped 11 yards for a touchdown. Just as it seemed Los Angeles was in control, the Patriots answered as Craig James helped lead a scoring drive with a 24-yard run, a 27-yard reception, eventually scoring from the two. Ronnie Lippett came down with a second interception as Tony Franklin hit a 45-yard field goal to tie the game at 17. The Raiders would get one more possession before the half and again took the lead with a 32 hard field goal by Bahr. 

The Raiders had a 20-17 lead but were playing wreckless football. Turnovers plagued Los Angeles, allowing the Patriots a five and a half point underdog to believe they could win. The Raiders tried to settle things down by giving the ball to Marcus Allen, who was the NFL MVP in 1985. However, even Allen became a victim of the turnover bug fumbling to set the Patriots up for the game-tying field goal by the barefooted Franklin. On the ensuing kickoff, there was chaos as Sam Seale fumbled, allowing Jim Bowman, who recovered Fulton Walker's muffed punt, to recover the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. 

The Patriots led 27-20 midway through the third quarter, as the Raiders' offense faltered, with Fred Marion coming away with a third interception as the Raiders committed six turnovers. Marcus Allen finished the game with 121 yards but drew the ire of Al Davis, leading to a heated contract negotiation that would forever fracture their relationship. Craig James had a big game for New England, with 152 yards scrimmage, even completing an eight-yard pass. James would help the Patriots upset the Miami Dolphins a week later 31-14, again forcing six turnovers. The Patriots would lose Super Bowl XX to the Chicago Bears 46-10 but had a magical run that drew many new fans. They were the first team to win three road playoff games to reach the Super Bowl.

Following the Patriots' win in Los Angeles, a fight broke out as the teams left the field. Pat Sullivan, the Patriots GM, spent the entire game heckling Howie Long, a native of Boston. Sullivan was also the son of Patriots owner Billy Sullivan as the team was a family at the time. Long had gone to confront Sullivan but had no intention of hitting the Patriots' General Manager. Sullivan, though escalated the fight by grasping Long's face mask, which led Matt Millen to punch him out. The Sullivan's had a feud with Al Davis and the Raiders dating back to the 1976 playoff game and the Stingley injury. Millen called the punch a good hit and was not disciplined, as Pat Sullivan was seen as the instigator.