By: Bob George/
November 03, 2007

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INDIANAPOLIS -- If Ben Dreith is the most despised referee in Patriot Nation, Fred Silva would have to be the second most.

His ruling of dead ball instead of a fumble by Colt quarterback Bert Jones in the late stages of the 1977 season finale at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore led to a 3-yard touchdown run by Don McCauley, giving the Colts a 30-24 win over the New England Patriots and the AFC East championship. Silva's call, which on replay showed clearly that Jones did fumble at the Patriot 10-yard line, was the final dagger in the heart of Patriot fans who felt screwed the week before thanks to the Colts benefiting from a loss against the lowly Detroit Lions. The Patriots went from a playoff team in 1976 to a 9-5 outsider in 1977.

This epitomized what the Colts meant to the Patriots back then. Over the years, no team other than perhaps the Oakland Raiders were more despicable in the eyes of Patriot Nation than the Baltimore Colts of the mid-1970s. You may hate this current version of the Colts, and are sick and tired of the saturation coverage of Peyton Manning, but between 1975 and 1977, that Colt team was a powerhouse and a huge nemesis for the Patriots..

The Colts had to rebuild and retool following the Super Bowl runners-up in 1968 and the champs in 1970. Johnny Unitas ended his career in 1973 in San Diego, while the Colts drafted this hotshot quarterback out of LSU that same year. Jones had a howitzer for an arm, and would take over the Colts and lead them to three straight AFC East titles.

He had a lot of help, but Jones was the franchise figurehead during this era. There was Lydell Mitchell at running back, Roger Carr and Freddie Scott (of Amherst College, believe it or not) at wideouts, Raymond Chester at tight end, and an offensive line which was anchored by George Kunz, Ken Mendenhall and Ken Huff. Defensively, there was Joe Ehrmann and John Dutton anchoring the line, Stan White and Ed Simonini at linebacker, and AIC's Bruce Laird heading up a strong secondary.

This bunch went 31-11 from 1975 to 1977, winning three AFC East titles along the way. The Patriots matched the Colts in 1976 with identical 11-3 records en route to their first playoff appearance since the merger. The Colts won the tiebreaker with the Patriots thanks to a better division record, so they hosted Pittsburgh in the playoffs while the Patriots had to travel to Oakland as a Wild Card. Both the Patriots and Colts lost in the first round, but the Patriots lost by a sliver while the Steelers blew out the Colts in Baltimore.

Hang 1976 on Dreith and his lousy roughing the passer call. But the end of the 1977 season, which is lost among many of the older fans, had just the same sour taste in your mouth as 1976 had. It produced a scenario where Baltimore was rewarded for losing, and it was the reason why the NFL went to two Wild Card teams in 1978, along with expanding the schedule to 16 games.

Going into the final two weeks of the 1977 season, Miami and Baltimore were tied at 9-3, with the Patriots a game behind at 8-4. Baltimore hosted Detroit in Week 13 while the Patriots hosted Miami at Schaefer Stadium. The Colts were huge favorites at home against Detroit, but wound up getting a punt blocked in the late stages of the game by Leonard Thompson, who ran it in from two yards out to give the Lions an incredible 13-10 win. The Patriots beat the Dolphins, 14-10, and all three teams were tied at 9-4 going into the final week.

By losing to Detroit, Baltimore in effect eliminated the Patriots from the playoffs and got them out of an unfavorable tiebreaker situation with Miami. In this scenario, the only way the Patriots could make the playoffs was to win the division by beating Baltimore on the road and Miami lose at home to the 3-10 Buffalo Bills. A Miami win eliminated the Patriots from the playoffs. A Baltimore loss to Detroit literally guaranteed a two-way tie with Miami, a tiebreaker they would win. A three-way tie gave the division to New England. With Oakland locked in as the Wild Card, the AFC East would send only one team to the playoffs.

Miami played early on that Sunday, New England played late. There was no way the lowly Bills were going to upset Miami in the Orange Bowl, and sure enough, the Fish prevailed, 31-14. The Patriots went into their game with the Colts knowing they were out of the playoffs, so they were playing to knock out the Colts and give Miami the division title.

Things were going well at first for the scorned Patriots. They built a 24-10 third quarter lead thanks to two touchdowns by Steve Grogan and a 101-yard kickoff return by rookie Raymond Clayborn. But the Colts stormed back with three late touchdowns to win, the latter coming after that missed fumble by Silva.

Jones threw touchdown passes to Chester and Scott to bring them to within 24-23 (a missed extra point was the difference). As the Colts were driving towards the game-winning touchdown, Tony McGee, the chief sackmaster back then, burst in and sacked Jones, causing a fumble. The Patriots covered the fumble, but Silva waved off the fumble and ruled that Jones was down before he coughed up the ball. The livid Patriots howled in protest, but the Colts kept the ball and cashed in when McCauley ran it in from the three to make it 30-24 Colts, which would stand up as the final score.

The Colts won the division, but the Patriots went home that offseason seething. They had seen the Colts purposely lose an easy winnable game at home to help them win the division and knock the Patriots out of the playoffs. The Patriots would come back in 1978 to win the division, but were bounced early from the playoffs at home by Houston after Chuck Fairbanks announced he would leave the team and coach at the University of Colorado the next year. The loss to Houston remains the only home playoff loss in Patriot history.

The Patriots gained some solace in that the Colts exited the playoffs early in 1977, losing at home to Oakland, 37-31 in one of the few games in NFL history to go into double overtime. But the Patriots hated the Colts with a passion back then. Oakland was just a one-game affair. The Colts were the sworn enemy.

So, hate Manning all you want. But thirty years ago Jones, who like Manning was a quarterback from the Deep South, was as reviled in New England as any opponent could ever be. Manning's Colts are on a longer run of prosperity, but the Patriots have had success against the Colts of today. The mid-1970s Colts, however, were one very, very tough team.

So, when you look at all those Wild Cards in January, they are all there thanks to the Patriots and the Colts.