There is an old saying in sports: before you can win you need to learn not to lose. The 2020 New England Patriots still appear to be in the first stage of that process, after losing yet another game by simply not being able to string enough positive plays together to prevail in crunch time.
Their Week 8 defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Bills therefore follows a familiar script that was also on display in Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks and in Week 6 versus the Denver Broncos. Both times, just like on Sunday, New England came close to pulling out a come-from-behind victory in the final moments of the game. Both times, however, they failed to deliver in crunch time.
Against Seattle, quarterback Cam Newton was stopped on last-second designed run from the 1-yard line. The Patriots lost 35-30.
Against Denver, Newton and wide receiver N’Keal Harry were unable to connect on a fourth down pass while inside Broncos territory. The Patriots lost 18-12.
Against Buffalo, meanwhile, the team was driving for a game-winning touchdown or at least a tying field goal when Newton had the football knocked free from behind. The Bills recovered with 30 seconds left. The Patriots lost 24-21.
“All three situations were quite different, but the results were the same,” said head coach Bill Belichick during his media conference call after the most recent of the three games. And Belichick is right, of course, in that his team found a different way to get beaten each time despite previously putting itself in a good position to eventually come away with a victory after all. It didn’t, though, and now sits at 2-5 and fighting for its playoff life.
This is quite a new situation for Belichick’s Patriot to be in. Over the last 20 years, after all, they built a dynasty on an ability to win close games and make plays when it matters the most; they built it on letting the other team make the crucial mistake. This season looks quite different, though, as New England is only a few plays away from having a better record and possibly being as good as 5-2.
Alas, the necessary plays were not made.
“It’s very frustrating,” said safety Devin McCourty after Sunday’s game. “You want to be in games. Obviously, last week was terrible, but to have three different games where we have an opportunity to win, earlier this season we talked about it: it’s encouraging, we knew we just had to get better and try to close out. But now, as you continue to go on, it’s frustrating. We just have to find a way to win these games. We’re right there, we just got to find ways.
“It’s one or two plays. It’s defensively, us getting the ball back faster for our offense. ... It’s taking some of that pressure off. It’s complementing each other throughout the game. It’s a play or two or three, where we can just reverse that and it will give us a better chance to win. Every game doesn’t come down to us making the perfect play at the end, we just need to do a little bit more throughout the game.”
The Patriots may have lost on Cam Newton’s fumble with under a minute left against the Bills, but they were in such a do-or-die situation to begin with because of their shortcomings before that final drive. They didn’t stop the run. They didn’t build an offensive rhythm until the second half. They made curious in-game decisions.
Add it all up and you get a team whose fortunes can come down to one play. This does not have to be a problem, necessarily, as the Patriots of previous years oftentimes found themselves in similar situations but eventually pulled out the win. This year, however, they have not been able to do that. But while the finger-pointing brigade will turn to Newton or the team’s perceived lack of receiving threats, there is another perspective as well.
If the Patriots can find a way to correct the “play or two or three” that McCourty mentioned, they have shown that they can play winning football. The problem is that a) they have not done so consistently, and b) time is running out heading into the half-point of the season.
In the meantime, it’s back to one of Bill Belichick’s popular mottos: do your job — something Cam Newton also pointed out after the game.
“We just have to be better at situational football, and practice on it each and every day. It’s just up to players, including myself, it’s up to me to just execute better. That’s what it comes down to,” Newton said. “It’s so frustrating because you’re trying extremely hard, but at the end of the day if you don’t get the results you want, then what do you do? We just have to focus in, come back in from practice and have our best week yet.”