FOXBORO, Mass. -- They probably could have lost yesterday and still qualified for the AFC playoffs because Tennessee was beaten in Green Bay, Pittsburgh lost to Cincinnati at home and neither Seattle nor Oakland was likely to win its final two games.
But the New England Patriots didn't want to back into the playoffs and yesterday, in a performance no one could have imagined, they did what was necessary to qualify legitimately by upsetting the mighty San Francisco 49ers before a sellout crowd at Foxboro Stadium.
Adam Vinatieri drilled a 35-yard field goal with three seconds to play, capping a 10-point rally in the fourth quarter as the Scott Zolak-led Pats scored a 24-21 victory that assured them of a third straight trip to the conference playoffs.
"We know people were saying our season's lost because Drew [Bledsoe], Terry [Glenn] and Ted [Johnson] are gone," said linebacker Todd Collins. "But we're not thinking that way. We're just committed to doing the best we can and hoping it'll be enough."
Zolak, the former Maryland quarterback, had his ups and downs through three quarters, but he delivered the goods in the fourth when he connected with Tony Simmons and Ben Coates on clutch third- and fourth-down passes that set up rookie tailback Robert Edwards' game-tying 5-yard run.
Then, after the Pats' defense stopped the Niners cold, with Greg Spires dropping Young for a 10-yard loss in a third-and-9 situation from the San Francisco 19, Bledsoe's understudy performed flawlessly on the drive that led to Vinatieri's winning field goal.
"He did a great job," said coach Pete Carroll, who admitted feeling a special glow that accompanied the win over his former team. "He did it like a true pro. I can't tell you how proud his teammates are of him because he's such a great team guy and when he had his chance he came through."
"I'm just glad I got a chance to show people what I could do," said Zolak, who started his sixth game in eight seasons with the Patriots. "Over the years, I've pretty much been along for the ride."
He may be driving again next Sunday against the New York Jets if the Patriots rest Bledsoe for their wild-card game the following week.
The Pats' best was good enough in this one, though just barely, because while they were able to mix the pass and run effectively, the 11-4 Niners curiously ignored their best offensive weapons -- wide receivers Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens and J.J. Stokes -- at crunch time.
Indeed, so determined were the Niners to win on the running of tailback Garrison Hearst, who had run wild against Detroit last weekend, that All-Pro quarterback Steve Young threw only a single pass in the fourth quarter.
"I don't know what they were thinking," said Patriots linebacker Marty Moore, "but if they aren't throwing to Rice and the others, they're playing into our hands."
Young twisted his left knee on a sack on San Francisco's final play and will have an MRI today.
Hearst, who had run for a franchise-record 198 yards against Detroit, gained 107 on 27 tries against the 9-6 Pats. But only 45 of those yards came in the second half and he was dropped for a 5-yard loss on fourth-and-one at the New England 29 on the game's key play in the third quarter.
Edwards gained 101 yards on 24 carries and scored a pair of touchdowns, and Zolak hit on 14 of 30 pass attempts for 205 yards, including a beautifully delivered 61-yard touchdown bomb to Shawn Jefferson in the second quarter.
AFC: The Broncos, Jaguars, Jets, Bills and Patriots have clinched berths. The Dolphins can reach the postseason with a win tonight or Sunday. The Oilers can clinch a berth with a win and two losses by the Dolphins.
NFC: The Vikings, Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys and Packers have clinched berths. The last spot can be won by either the Cardinals (8-7), Giants (7-8) or Buccaneers (7-8). If the Cardinals win next week, they are in. Here's how ties among the teams play out:
Situation .. .. .. .. Who's in
Bucs tie .. .. .. .. .Bucs
Cards, Giants tie .. .Giants
Cards, Bucs tie .. ...Cards
Pub Date: 12/21/98