After a disappointing finish the previous season, the Patriots were determined to wash away the bitter memories of 1979. With the Miami Dolphins looking vulnerable, the pundits again looked for the Patriots to claim the division title and challenge for the conference crown. Once again for half a season New England resembled one of the best teams in football, but for the second year in a row, a second half slide cost the team a chance at the postseason.
The team appeared to be in dire straights at the start of the season when several veterans staged holdouts. Although All-Pro cornerback Mike Haynes eventually signed, running back Sam Cunningham (the Pats leading rusher the past five seasons) never came to terms and missed the entire season. Rookie No. 1 draft choice Vagas Ferguson replaced Cunningham in the backfield and responded with a fine season, capturing the AFC Rookie of the Year Award and breaking the club's rookie rushing record set by Carl Garrett in 1969.
New England had much to prove in the season opener against the Cleveland Browns. Long-time Patriots Sam Hunt and Doug Beaudoin were released in the final cutdown and retaliated by calling their former club "a dead team" with no emotion, spark or leadership. Motivated by their former teammates' comments, the Patriots responded by rolling up a 34-3 lead and cruising to a 34-17 win. Steve Grogan fired three touchdown passes to three different receivers while the New England defense held the Browns to a mere 48 yards rushing.
After stumbling against the Atlanta Falcons the following week New England ran off five consecutive victories to run their record to an impressive 6-1 near midseason.
The five-game winning streak ended in Buffalo where the Bills top-ranked defense and 45 mph winds at a chilly Rich Stadium combined to thwart the Patriots in a 34-13 loss. The Patriots rebounded the following week against the Jets. The win, coupled with a Buffalo loss, put the Patriots back atop the AFC East with a 7-2 record, but for the second year in a row, a second half slump ensured a non-playoff season.
While the Patriots did not play poorly, they did lose four of the next five games by a combined 14 points. The streak started with a bizarre 34-30 loss to the Houston Oilers at the Astrodome in a "Monday Night Football" contest.
Before the Patriots rebounded with two wins to end the season, they visited the Orange Bowl for a Monday night battle against Don Shula's Dolphins, a team they handled easily in Week Six. With Grogan now on the bench injured and out for the remainder of the season, Erhardt devised an ultraconservative game plan for Matt Cavanaugh, who put the ball in the air only 16 times all evening. Preferring to slug things out in the trenches, it appeared New England's cautious approach would pay off when the NFL's leading scorer John Smith lined up for a game-winning field goal attempt with just seconds left to play. But Smith's kick was blocked and the game went to overtime. News that Beatle John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York City brought a solemn tone to the broadcast, but Patriots fans were further saddened just moments later. Miami won the overtime coin toss and pulled off a 54-yard pass play to set up Uwe von Schamann's game-winning field goal.
With an 8-6 record and their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, the Patriots pummeled the division-leading Bills, 24-2, and then watched Cavanaugh play the finest game of his young career in the season-ending 38-27 win at New Orleans. At 10-6, the Patriots awaited word on their playoff fate. But when Buffalo, Cleveland and San Diego all won their respective games, the Patriots were out of the postseason for the second straight season.
The 1980 season proved to be the most frustrating in team history. Despite boasting the league's highest scoring offense (441 points), the second highest rushing offense, two receivers in Jackson and Morgan who averaged more than 20 yards a reception, the NFL's leading scorer in Smith, and the AFC's leading kickoff returner in Horace Ivory, the Patriots had nothing to show for their effort. The failure of the last two seasons took its toll on the team as it fell back from the ranks of the NFL elite and was forced to rebuild.