By beating Buffalo last Sunday at the Bills' own game—defense—the amazing Boston Patriots have taken the lead in the American Football League's Eastern Division. To keep the lead, the Pats must defeat the Oilers in Houston this week and the Jets in New York on the final weekend of the regular season. That seems to be a formidable job even for the Patriots, who do their best when the pressure is toughest. But the very fact that Boston is up there at all is cause for astonishment. It should be enough to make Mike Holovak the AFL's Coach of the Year and Fullback Jim Nance—who got the Patriots moving on offense with a brilliant, battering 65-yard touchdown run (see cover)—the league's most valuable player. It ought to win a year's supply of cigars for Quarterback Babe Parilli.
Although Buffalo's Joel Collier, the youngest head coach in professional football, said early in the season that he expected the East to come down to a fight between his team and Boston in the fading weeks, few considered that idea seriously—especially after Buffalo Quarterback Jack Kemp got his sore elbow cured and took the Bills on a streak, losing only one of 10 games. But Boston, all but unnoticed, was losing only one game of eight. The loss was a freakish thing played against Denver in a cold rainstorm, and it knocked the Pats out of an earlier, temporary lead.
Boston rebounded from the Denver loss to tie Kansas City, the Western Division champions, 27-27, and then beat Miami to set up last week's showdown with Buffalo. Suddenly the Pats became candidates for reappraisal.
There are at least three reasons for Boston's surprising success: the consistent play of Nance, the uncanny coaching of Holovak and a defense that has been exceptionally reluctant to give up yardage on the ground, thus cutting off ball control by opponents. "We figure if you take away the rushing," says Boston Defensive Tackle Houston Antwine, "the other side can't keep the ball for very long at a time."
Middle Linebacker Nick Buoniconti is a vital part of such strategy. At 5 feet 11 and 220 pounds, Buoniconti, who made his reputation as a fierce blitzer, is so quick that he looks like a big safety man playing a few yards across from the opposing quarterback. Buoniconti has an instinct for being where the action is, and he reads offenses as if he had been in the other huddle.
Buoniconti and the Pats used to put on a blitz that resembled a stampede. ''They hit you with so many guys," Kemp once said, "that you'd swear half a dozen of them came out of the stands." Such full-out blitzing is usually a gamble to disguise a weakness, which in Boston's case was—and still is—the defensive backs' lack of speed. But the Patriots worked the blitz so well that it came to be regarded as a standard defense—and helped them win the Eastern Championship in 1963.
"We blitzed a lot because we were getting away with it," says Holovak, a tall, quiet man who was an outstanding fullback on Frank Leahy's Boston College teams of 1940, 1941 and 1942 and who later played fullback for the Rams and the Bears. "We don't blitz a tenth as much as we did three years ago. If we blitz less, it is more effective."
After PT-boat duty in World War II, Holovak served as head coach at Boston College for nine seasons. BC teams at that time were so meager in talent that Holovak had to move players around from week to week into positions they had never played before. That experience served him well when he joined the Pats in 1959 as director of player personnel. He was pressed into labor as offensive backfield coach under Lou Saban and became head coach when Saban was fired after the fifth game of the 1961 season. Under Holovak, the Patriots have never finished worse than second except in 1965, when a flood of injuries dropped them to third.
Boston was not expected to rise much above that mediocre level this year. Quarterback Parilli is 36 years old. Most of the Patriots' receivers are small and slow, although one of them, Gino Cappelletti, the field-goal kicker, has led the AFL in scoring four times. Their main strengths were their defensive line and linebackers. But without a runner to ease the obligations of Larry Garron, the defense seemed in for a long year. And the Pats started off gloomily enough, losing two of their first three games before Holovak rallied them.
"Mike gets more out of his material than any other coach I've ever seen," says one of his AFL rivals. "His secret is that he sticks to the things his team does best. Mike doesn't allow any prima donnas. His players are tough guys who like to play and they play for Mike, who is a gentleman."
"If I have any secret," says Holovak, "it's that we work hard and this team is gifted with fellows who stick together and believe in themselves. We can play anybody to a standstill, and we know it."
Holovak has employed a number of players who would have had to buy tickets to see some of the other clubs perform. After Oakland's financial problems were settled, Boston and Denver were the pinchpenny franchises of the AFL. There was little money to spend on players—at least until TV revenues and declining talent prodded the Pats into signing their best crop of rookies last season. There is no elaborate scouting system at Boston. The result is that the Pats have found most of their players in the East or South. "We concentrate on smaller areas," Holovak says. "When the two leagues were competing, we felt we'd have little chance to sign a boy from the Far West, for example, if the Rams or 49ers had drafted the same boy. Then, too, we can learn more about players from our own area because we can scout them more frequently."
It was from the East that Holovak got the man who has made the Boston offense go this year. With Parilli having a poor season statistically, Jim Nance had to come through at fullback. Nance was better known in college at Syracuse for wrestling than for football. Still, he was a high draft choice of the Bears, but only the 19th-round pick of the cautious Pats. For half of his rookie year, 1965, Nance looked as if he should have stayed on the mat. He was heavy and slow, and the Pats began to think they had got themselves a flop. After a midseason game, Nance weighed 260. "Jim, you're a good blocker," said Holovak. "I'll bet you'd make a fine guard."
"I am a good blocker," Nance says. "Every coach I've had has thought about turning me into a guard or tackle. I didn't know if Mike was serious or just using psychology on me. But I knew I'd better lose some weight. My trouble is, everything I eat sticks to me, and I like pies and cakes." This year, at 235, Nance has become an effective runner. When he drives into a stack of players, the stack moves. He gets an emotional response from the Boston crowd by making three yards. On October 30, against Oakland, Parilli completed only four passes, but Nance carried 38 times for 208 yards and Boston won. "For Nance, it was a question of dedication and of realizing he could do it," says Holovak. "His potential is unlimited."
Oddly, perhaps, what helped most to discipline Nance was his buying a place called Jim Nance's Lounge in Boston. The two jobs keep him too busy to eat. "But the primary thing is that last year I wasn't serious," says Nance. "I had an ideal, easy life. Buying the place meant my employees had to rely on me, and I had to rely on them. If a person works for me, I expect him to do his job. I work for Holovak, and he expects me to do my job."
Wrestling, too, has aided Nance as a fullback. "It's good for my balance," he says. "It's good for the small cuts. And in wrestling, it's one guy against another, with nobody to help. I've got plenty of help on this team, of course, but the wrestling feeling has carried over. It's a personal thing. Those guys in the secondary are smaller than I am. They'll come in looking to tackle me head on, but after I've tagged them a couple of times they start closing their eyes or ducking their heads. Pretty soon they're swearing when they get up. Then they'll start turning their shoulders when they come at me, and I know I've got them."
Nance's only flaw as a fullback is that he doesn't yet know how to run wide. But he has the speed to do so—as he proved in the first quarter on a bright, cold day last Sunday against Buffalo. On third and two when everybody in the sellout crowd of 39,350 at Fenway Park knew it would be Nance carrying the ball, the big fullback crashed into an excellent Buffalo defensive line that was massed against him. He broke two tackles, stumbled but regained his balance and ran for his touchdown.
That run started Nance toward his fourth consecutive 100-yard-plus afternoon and added to the 1,234 yards he now has for the season—an AFL record. It also put Boston ahead, 7-3. But it took a brilliant defense and a bit of luck to keep the Pats there. In the second quarter, on a blitz, Kemp threw an apparent 56-yard touchdown pass to Glenn Bass. The pass was wiped out because of offensive interference. After that, Kemp cooled off. Parilli was having his own problems with the Buffalo defense, but he got a break in the third quarter when a pass to Joe Bellino bounced off the hands of an interceptor—Tom Janik—and wound up being clutched by Bellino at the Bills' five-yard line. With Nance leading the blocking convoy, Parilli scored on a roll-out from the three for a 14-3 lead. There was to be no more scoring.
The Pats were trying to contain Kemp, who likes to scramble to the outside. They would come on with the blitz sometimes, but as often they came with a three-man rush that—due to the excellent play of Tackles Antwine and Jim Hunt—reached Kemp and bothered him. End Larry Eisenhauer got to Kemp late in the third quarter and put him out of the game. Daryle Lamonica finished as the Buffalo quarterback, losing the ball twice on fumbles. In the last seconds the Bills drove to the Boston one and were stopped again. The Pats were jubilant. This year's AFL championship game will be played in the East, where frozen ground might give Nance an edge. Nance, however, is thinking beyond that. "I want to play those NFL guys," he says. "I'm sick of hearing people say we're not good enough to play in that league."