FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts – The Cardinals got the start they wanted.
That finish, though, wasn't going to work, and now the Cardinals have to hope their finish overall to the season is good enough to get them into the postseason.
"We're going to find out what we're made of," guard Justin Pugh said after the Cardinals lost to the Patriots Sunday at Gillette Stadium, 20-17, on a 50-yard field goal by Nick Folk on the final play of the game.
That came after Zane Gonzalez missed a 45-yard field goal for the Cardinals (6-5) with a little less than two minutes left, the final misstep in a game the Cards – again – will mourn as they go through the video and lament what could have been.
"It's not a good feeling to keep doing that to ourselves over and over again," quarterback Kyler Murray said.
The Cardinals didn't have wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald because of COVID. They didn't have Murray as an effective runner, not because of Murray's right shoulder issues but because the Patriots essentially forced him to hand off on every zone read, choosing to fend off running backs Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds instead.
They still came out of the first quarter with a 10-0 lead, scoring a touchdown on their first offensive possession for only the second time this season.
Murray threw for only 170 yards and no touchdowns, although Drake scored twice. The quarterback – after a few questions about his lack of running (five carries, 31 yards) – chuckled.
"I don't think I have to run for us to be successful," Murray said.
The Cardinals, who have lost three of four (and the win coming on a Hail Murray), had a season-low 298 yards of offense yet still outgained the Patriots (5-6) by more than 100 yards. Newton completed only 9-of-18 passes for 84 yards and two interceptions (the other by linebacker Markus Golden) as the Patriots (5-6) struggled offensively.
But it was the Patriots' defense that found a way to change the game.
At the end of the first half the Cards were in a perfect spot to take control, with a second-and-goal at the New England 8 with time running down. But Christian Kirk couldn't hold on to a slant pass at the goal line on second down, and on third, a short pass to KeeSean Johnson looked like a touchdown after a Herculean effort to fight through multiple tackles to the end zone by the little-used receiver. But that was overturned on replay, saying Johnson was down inches from a score.
On fourth down, a give to Kenyan Drake was close, but ruled short and replays could not give a clear answer. It was a missed opportunity that brought with it a heavy cost.
"We've got to step up in the biggest moments, and that's across the board," Pugh said. "We're in this together."
The Cards got the ball to start the second half but looked like they were hung over from the end-half miss, and never got going. Even their one scoring drive in the second half came through the muck, multiple Patriots holding penalties in the end zone slowly getting Drake in position for a one-yard score that he indeed got over the goal line.
When cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick nabbed an interception midway through the fourth quarter, however, the game was there to salvage. Murray directed them to field goal range.
Drake couldn't get the corner on third-and-2 that could've burned more clock. Then Gonzalez then pushed his attempt wide with a little less than two minutes to go, at once dealing a gut punch to the Cardinals and giving the Patriots a final chance upon which they ultimately capitalized.
"I'll have to get with (special teams) coach (Jeff) Rodgers and kind of talk through what he saw on that and what Zane felt," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. "Like I said, he's kicked well for us the majority of the time. We've just got to find a way to get that done.
"There are a ton of plays in that game that could have made up for that."
Now the Cardinals must find a way to figure out how to stop their death by a thousand papercuts, close losses that are pushing them away from the postseason they crave.
Five games remain, including two against the Rams, who remain ahead of the Cardinals in the standings.
"It's not easy to win in the NFL," linebacker Markus Golden said. "You've got to be excited for stuff like this."