Patriots’ ‘Squish The Fish’ Miracle Over Dolphins Changed Perception

New England beat Miami in the 1985 AFC Championship Game to reach its first Super Bowl


Jan 4, 2023

Believe it or not, the Patriots existed well before Tom Brady and Bill Belichick helped redefine expectations for New England during the early 2000s.

It wasn’t necessarily the most glamorous existence, as the Pats long were synonymous with playoff futility. But there was a brief glimmer of hope in the mid-1980s that should not be forgotten as the years pass and we contextualize the franchise’s long, fascinating history.

The Patriots started off 2-3 during the 1985 season, their 16th in the NFL after a 10-year run in the AFL before the merger. It was hard to fathom at that point, especially with the Patriots having never won an NFL playoff game, that New England would make noise and captivate a region. Yet, that’s nevertheless what unfolded in the ensuing months, with the Patriots’ “squish the fish” AFC Championship Game win over the Miami Dolphins perfectly symbolizing their underdog story.

The Patriots won nine of their final 11 regular-season games, despite aging quarterback Steve Grogan being thrust into action when third-year upstart Tony Eason went down with an injury, and rode a stout defense into the postseason. The deck was stacked against New England, even when Eason returned, but the Patriots became the first team in NFL history to advance to the Super Bowl by winning three road playoff games.

First, the Patriots downed the New York Jets in the Meadowlands 26-14. Then, New England upset the Los Angeles Raiders at the Coliseum 27-20. The craziest win of all, however, was a 31-14 upset victory over Dan Marino, Don Shula and the Dolphins at the Orange Bowl to secure the conference crown. The ‘Fins had lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl the year prior and looked primed to return to the big stage after going 12-4 in the 1985 regular season.

“As I recall, we went down there for three or four days to get acclimated,” former New England linebacker Andre Tippett recalled in a 2005 article on “We ran into some of the Dolphins when we were out and on game day you could see the same thing. You could see it in their eyes. They weren’t ready and they didn’t want to play the Patriots. We were like a dog sensing fear in the mailman.”

The Patriots had lost 18 consecutive games at the Orange Bowl before that improbable win over the Dolphins. Marino had won the NFL MVP Award in 1984, throwing for 5,084 yards with 48 touchdown passes (both single-season records at the time), and a date with the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XX seemed like a foregone conclusion for Miami.

But New England leaned on its ground attack in the AFC Championship Game, running for 255 yards on 59 carries and dominating the time of possession battle 39:51 to 20:09. The Patriots effectively neutralized the Dolphins’ high-octane offense.

“The coaches decided we were going to run the ball and keep it from Marino,” former Patriots guard John Hannah recalled, according to a 2015 article on “I think we only threw the ball like 10 or 12 times. It was rock ’em, sock ’em football.”

The Patriots ultimately received a taste of their own medicine two weeks later, when the Bears spoiled New England’s first-ever Super Bowl appearance with a 46-10 beatdown at the Louisiana Superdome. But that Bears squad — coached by Mike Ditka and led by a dominant defense — is considered one of the greatest teams in NFL history. There’s truly no shame in that defeat, especially given how hard New England scratched and clawed that season.

“No one can ever take away the fact that we were the first (Patriots team to reach the Super Bowl),” Tippett said, per “Today’s Patriots have made history in their way. We made history in ours.”

It would be another 11 seasons before the Patriots reached the Super Bowl again. It would be 16 before New England, with Brady and Belichick leading the charge, finally hoisted the Lombardi Trophy to cap the 2001 campaign. But that 1985 Patriots team in many ways put the organization on the map — both locally and nationally.

“The Celtics were good, the Red Sox were always the Red Sox around here, and the Bruins were good as well,” former Patriots linebacker Steve Nelson recalled, per a 2005 article. “Back then, we were kind of the fourth team in the city and the region. But that was the year of ‘Squish the Fish’ and ‘Berry the Bears.’ It was remarkable to see. It was a great example of the Boston and New England fans and the way they could rise to the occasion and support us. I was overwhelmed by it all.”

Every dynasty starts somewhere.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images
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