FOXBOROUGH - It was a soggy blur of black and gold opportunism. Turnover, after turnover, after turnover, after turnover, after turnover. There were five straight in all, and when the Patriots were done dropping the ball, having it stripped, and throwing it to the Pittsburgh Steelers, a winnable game had devolved into a damp and disappointing 33-10 defeat.
Poised for their annual late November/early December playoff push, the Patriots instead were pushed around by Pittsburgh in the second half, outgained 187 yards to 81 and outscored, 23-0.
“Today was a pretty big disappointment for us,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “We came into the game with high hopes, and we didn’t play very well. I can only speak for the offense, but the second half was pretty ugly. You saw a lot of the mistakes we made, and you can’t win playing games like that.”
Playing against Pittsburgh’s top-rated defense, the Patriots (7-5) couldn’t hold on to a slippery football on a raw, rainy evening in New England and as a result they slipped in the playoff race, failing to keep pace with the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens, both of which won yesterday to move to 8-4. Those teams currently hold the two wild-card slots in the AFC.
The only good news for New England is that it is still just a game back in the AFC East as the Denver Broncos busted the New York Jets (8-4). But with four games to play, the margin for error for the Patriots is as thin as the razor blades made by the company whose name adorns their home field.
“The Jets lost, didn’t they?” asked Mankins. “Ah, see, we’d be in first place. We blew a big one today. As the season goes each game gets bigger and bigger, so it’s going to be another big week.”
The tide-turning, turnover-binge stretch of play started innocently enough when Pittsburgh took its first lead of the game on a 25-yard field goal by Jeff Reed with 5:39 left in the third quarter.
Rookie Matthew Slater, filling in for Ellis Hobbs, who was dealing with cramps, muffed the ensuing kickoff, the ball bouncing off his chest and then hitting his foot before being recovered by Pittsburgh’s Keyaron Fox at the Patriots’ 8.
Two plays later Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger found Hines Ward for an 11-yard touchdown and a 20-10 lead.
Slater’s stunning mistake turned out to be the start of a nightmarish stretch of five straight giveaways - three fumbles and two interceptions - for the Patriots. Cassel was strip-sacked on back-to-back drives by Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison, the first of which led to a Reed 20-yard field goal.
Harrison’s second strip-sack resulted in Reed missing from 40 yards, but Troy Polamalu intercepted a Cassel pass that deflected off the fingertips of Benjamin Watson, leading to Reed’s fourth field goal.
After two straight 400-yard passing performances, Cassel was harried and harassed by the Steelers’ “Blitzburgh” scheme, getting sacked five times.
He was 19 of 39 for 169 yards with no touchdown passes and two interceptions, the last of which Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons took 89 yards to the Patriots 1, setting up Gary Russell’s sealing TD with 2:44 to go to put Pittsburgh ahead, 33-10.
“Five turnovers in the second half; you can’t beat anybody doing that,” said Cassel.
After rolling up more than 500 yards in each of their last two games, the Patriots only racked up 267 yards of offense against the stout Steelers and they were just 1 of 13 on third down.
What made it even more disappointing was that the Patriots, who actually forced the game’s first turnover, a Mike Vrabel interception that led to Sammy Morris’s 2-yard TD run with 12:01 left in the first quarter, squandered most of the opportunities they did have.
They should have gone into the locker room at halftime with a lead, after Kevin Faulk’s 41-yard rush - the Patriots’ longest of the season - helped them advance to the Pittsburgh 9 with 35 seconds left.
But they dropped the ball - literally - on the scoring chance, as a wide-open Randy Moss (four catches for 45 yards) dropped a would-be TD on second and goal, and two plays later Stephen Gostkowski missed a 27-yard field goal.
“I think that is the whole story of the game. We just didn’t take advantage of our opportunities and that goes all the way across the board,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“I thought we had momentum coming out of the half,” said Mankins. “We drove down and missed a field goal, but at least we drove down. We came back out. We’re driving the ball. Second and 1 - sack. Third and long - punt. That stuff kills you. After that we had the fumbled kickoff return, two strip-sacks, and an interception. You couldn’t beat a Pop Warner team doing that.”
You certainly weren’t going to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won in New England for the first time since 1997.
Now, the Patriots have to move forward and prepare for the final four games of the season, starting this Sunday with Seattle. It might take winning out to punch a playoff ticket.
“That’s what is in front of us now - four games left,” said linebacker Tedy Bruschi. “I hope we all look at it as one game, one game next, and we prepare to win the next one.
“I think we’ve always done a good job of putting big losses and big wins behind us. I think we’ll use that experience and come in and work [today] and try to get better from this and move on and try to get another win.”