Cam Newton and the Patriots weren’t all that far from victory Sunday afternoon in Houston.
And New England really isn’t all that far off from being a playoff contender in the AFC in 2020.
But, alas, the Patriots fell 27-20 to Deshaun Watson and the Texans, with Newton’s Hail Mary 50-yard completion to Ryan Izzo coming up short of the end zone, New England helpless at the Houston 12 as time expired. That came after a penultimate Patriots possession in which the visitors turned it over on downs on the Houston 24 with 1:11 to play.
The loss, yet another oh-so-close failure this fall, snapped the Patriots two-game winning streak, killed the momentum from the prior Sunday night’s upset of the Ravens and all but finished off New England’s realistic playoff hopes with a 4-6 record with six games to play.
Newton was upended at the Seahawks 2 as time expired in the 35-30 Week 2 loss in Seattle.
The Patriots offense turned the ball over on downs at the Denver 24 with 59 seconds to play in the 18-12 Week 6 loss to the Broncos.
Newton fumbled with New England in range for a game-tying field goal or game-winning score in the 24-21 Week 8 loss in Buffalo.
Four end-of-game, gotta-have it plays. Four failures. Four losses.
Split those four games and the playoffs are still very much within sight, at 6-4. Win all four as a team with a QB closer like, say, Tom Brady might do, and you’re sitting pretty at 8-2 as you hit the holiday season that suddenly feels more like Groundhog Day than Thanksgiving.
Lose all four and you are what your record says you are. No better. No worse.
New England isn’t a great football team. It’s not a terrible football team, either.
But as Thanksgiving indeed arrives, Bill Belichick’s team is in the rare position of more likely playing out the string than playing for a spot in the playoffs.
All because of a failure to finish games, a fatal flaw that seems to be finishing off the Patriots 2020 chances long before the season ends.
“Just fell short today,” safety Devin McCourty said after being on the wrong end of each of Houston’s first two touchdowns, the second a Watson run right over the New England defensive captain.
Just fell short today. And Sept. 20, Oct. 18 and Nov. 1.
It’s literally the story of the Patriots 2020 season.
“It is what it is,” McCourty said of the Patriots two-game winning streak coming to an end. “Momentum really doesn’t matter in this league. We’ve been building. We’ve been getting better. But when you don’t make a couple more plays then you fall short like this. I would say a lot of our season has kind of been like that.”
Yes, yes it has.
In this particular failure to finish, it may be even more disappointing given that New England’s supposed strengths didn’t really make the trip to Houston on either side of the ball.
Facing the NFL’s worst run defense and despite building momentum in recent weeks the Patriots ground game was able to muster a mere 86 yards rushing with a 3.6-yard average as a team.
And despite reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore returning to the lineup, the Patriots secondary and overall pass defense was helpless against Watson, who completed 28 of 37 passes for 344 yards and a pair of touchdowns for a 121.9 passer rating.
That’s not to say there weren’t positives. There were, as there have been at times all season. That’s why the game was close down to the wire.
New England started hot, marching 84 yards on 10 plays on its opening possession on the way to a 7-0 lead on Damien Harris’ 9-yard touchdown run.
Damiere Byrd had a career-high 132 yards on six catches as Newton’s new go-to guy this week.
And Newton threw for 365 yards, his best performance through the air by far since Seattle.
But it was all for naught.
“We just didn't do enough, didn't do enough at the critical times to, that we needed to. So it's disappointing, but we'll turn the page here and move on,” Belichick said. “Still have a lot of confidence and belief in the team. If we just do things a little bit better then the results will be different and better. But, I don't know, we just couldn't do it today.”
“It’s frustrating,” Byrd admitted. “Games come down to a few plays. We just weren’t able to execute all together across the board.
“Now we have to go back to the drawing board.”
That’s a reasonable thought, but to what end? Improved play in the coming weeks would be nice. Finding a way to win some of these tight games in the final six weeks would be good. But, the damage has already been done.
“We just have to keep competing,” Newton said, once again a beaten man. “We’ve had a lot of games just like it ended today. We’ve just been on the short end of the stick.”
The struggle to finish games is real for the Patriots.
The resulting frustration is as well.
Yet another losing effort came down to the final gun. Once again New England couldn’t get the job done. And as a result any dreams of a late-season run to the playoffs are just about dead.