By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It had its moments. It had its flashes of potential. It had a chance.
It almost was, but in the end, it was not. The Patriots’ season is now — for all intents and purposes — over.
That much is abundantly clear now that the Patriots have a loss to the miserable, playing-for-absolutely-nothing Houston Texans on their résumé.
Prior to this weekend, the only team the Texans had beaten was the Jacksonville Jaguars, a dreadful team that fell to 1-9 on Sunday. They had some talent, sure. But the Patriots — no matter the circumstance — are supposed to be better than a 2-7 team, particularly after coming off an emotional victory against the Ravens. Yet after taking a 10-7 lead in the second quarter, the Patriots were outscored 20-10 the rest of the way in a game where they were not the most physical team or the best-coached team on the field.
At 4-5, the Patriots’ chances of making the postseason were thin, but they nevertheless did exist. They would need to finish the season on a special sort of roll — something like a 7-2 run — while getting a little bit of help in the standings from other teams. It was doable, if unlikely.
But the key to conditions such as those is that a team must win the games that it should win. And a trip to Houston to face the 2-7 Texans — who were playing under an interim head coach, without a GM, without any reason to win — was one of those days.
Alas, the defense generated absolutely no pressure whatsoever on Deshaun Watson, allowing the quarterback to deliver pass after pass after pass with extreme precision. He accounted for three touchdowns before halftime en route to finishing 28-for-37 for 344 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, while also rushing for 36 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Patriots had very few answers.
Offensively, the Patriots did seem to have a decent plan of attack early on, feeding Damien Harris five times on the opening drive. But they veered away from the run-heavy attack, and before they knew it, they were trailing. From there it was a bit of a scramble, with some mixed results.
Cam Newton had the chance to tie the game late, but he had to run for his life before releasing a desperation heave while getting dragged to the turf. When the ball hit the artificial turf, the Patriots’ playoff chances were officially extinguished.
The loss dropped the Patriots to 4-6. Even if they manage to miraculously win their final six games, a 10-6 record likely doesn’t earn a playoff berth in 2020 — not even with the added third wild-card spot. The Browns, Raiders, Dolphins, Colts and Ravens all sit above the Patriots in the standings, and all of them have at least two more wins than New England. Even the Broncos now sit above the Patriots, who are in 11th place in the AFC.
Yet a 6-0 finish for the Patriots — a team that can’t beat the Texans or Broncos — is not happening, nor is a full-on collapse by three of the six teams ahead of New England in the AFC standings.
While some interesting games remain on the schedule — Kyler Murray, Justin Herbert, Tua Tagovailoa and Josh Allen vs. New England will make for some compelling television — the reality is that there’s not much left for the Patriots to play for, outside of pride and contracts.
That is a bit of a shame, considering the Patriots do have more talent than their record would indicate.
Yet it’s also a reality that’s been a long time coming for a franchise that’s managed to fend off the limits of reality for a very long time. Teams simply do not make the playoffs for 11 straight years and in 17 of 19 years. They also don’t reach either the conference championship game or the Super Bowl for eight straight years. That has applied to every team except for Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
It’s been very good for very long. But that stretch is now officially in the past.
It’ll be uncharted waters from here. While the Patriots have missed the playoffs twice during their two dynastic runs, they were alive in the playoff race until the season’s final moment in both 2002 and 2008. Having playoff hopes extinguished before Thanksgiving hasn’t happened in New England since 2000, when the franchise had zero Super Bowl victories, two Super Bowl appearances, and zero expectations.
This year, even though Tom Brady departed and even though a number of important players opted out due to COVID-19, the expectations still called for the Patriots to win nine or 10 games and at least participate in the expanded postseason field. A 4-6 record that leaves them as a playoff afterthought, ahead of only the cellar dwellers of the league, with losses to Denver and Houston and a much-too-narrow victory over the winless Jets? Even with those tempered expectations, this was never supposed to happen.
Of course, it’s the NFL, and life will go on. Cam Newton is still very much interested in reviving his career, thus earning some future job security in the NFL. He’ll remain very much invested in winning. The countless young players up and down the roster will continue to try to make their names known at this level.
And Bill Belichick, the winningest coach of the 21st century and the greatest champion of the Super Bowl era, will simply not take the field with a thought about losing at any point from now until Jan. 3. The Patriots will still play out their final six games, looking to win each and every week.
But for the first time in 20 years, we know in the middle of November that the NFL postseason will not involve the New England Patriots. Even if the Super Bowl was realistically out of reach entering this season, falling this far out of the playoff picture this early in the year was not supposed to happen.