Bill Belichick loves the bridge score. Nothing delights him more than when his Patriots pull off the double dip by scoring just before halftime and again right after it. Decades of NFL coaching have taught the veteran coach the value of the favored feat: The way it lifts an offense’s confidence, the way it drives a defense’s frustration, and the way, above all, it tilts the scales of the almighty scoreboard.
Belichick almost got one of his so-called “swings” Sunday in Pittsburgh, but Nick Folk’s field goal miss from 52 yards at the end of the Patriots’ initial third-quarter drive scuttled their chance to add to the explosive 44-yard touchdown Mac Jones threw to Nelson Agholor with 22 seconds left in the first half. The Steelers actually had a possession in between, but unable to get much out of their four plays, the effect for the Pats would have been the same.
“We had a chance,” Belichick said. “It was the right idea, we just got to do a little better job there finishing the drive at the start of the third quarter.”
The Pats may have whiffed on that opportunity to maintain momentum within Sunday’s game, but it was the end result, a 17-14 win built on a little bit of defensive and special teams opportunism and a clock-eating, game-closing offensive possession, that did the important work in avoiding a different kind of momentum.
The kind Belichick hasn’t experienced since his second year at the helm. The Patriots haven’t started a season 0-2 since 2001, and as much as it felt like a very real possibility it was going to occur again 21 years later, Belichick wasn’t about to let that happen.
We should have known.
After a week filled with questions about everything from the Week 1 loss in Miami to the health of quarterback Mac Jones to the ongoing miscommunications along the offensive line to the same communication questions for in-game coaching and play-calling, Belichick walked into Pittsburgh and walked out the way he has for most of his New England head coaching tenure, with a win. He’s 13-4 against the Steelers since arriving in 2000, though this game was less about the specific opponent than it was about the specific circumstance.
Belichick didn’t want to drop to 0-2, not while division rivals like the aforementioned Dolphins and the usually laughing-stock Jets were turning in thrilling comeback victories of their own, not while the Ravens lick the wounds of being on the wrong side of Miami’s latest miracle and look to take it out by spoiling the Patriots’ home opener this weekend, not while the recent celebration of his 70th birthday only underscored rumblings the game might finally be passing him by.
Dropping to 0-2 would have sent that negativity into overdrive, and the simple, yet powerful, statement Belichick offered to the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy — “,If it doesn’t go well, blame me” — would have resonated louder than ever, too. Belichick’s comment was in defense of his insistence on splitting offensive duties between Matt Patricia and Joe Judge despite both having other job titles (offensive line and quarterback, respectively) and neither having any play-calling experience. They looked the part of newbies in Miami, so maybe it was no surprise they appeared to receive a little extra input Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Because there Belichick was, clearly more involved in the offense than he was in Miami, meeting with Jones and Patricia between plays, studying the in-game photos to dissect and correct problems as quickly as possible, at one point even shown with his back to the field while his defense defended a key third and 1.
“I think it was just good to reinforce the things that we’re doing,” Belichick said after the game. “The way we prepared, the way we played was good enough to come in here and win against a good football team. A team that had a big win last week, coming in for their home opener. The Steelers are tough, coach [Mike] Tomlin, this organization consistently puts out high-quality football teams. And it’s good to come in here and get a win. It’s not easy. So, we’ll take it.”
Of course, the Patriots are far from fixing all their problems, and this offense is far from proficient. Improved offensive line play gave Jones more time, but his fixation on Agholor and Jakobi Meyers meant the likes of Kendrick Bourne, Hunter Henry, and Jonnu Smith, the three big-money additions from his rookie year, were mostly ignored. The Bourne situation is still too mysterious to consider settled, but whatever it takes to get him more involved, it should be a priority.
But the team’s first priority Sunday was avoiding the back-to-back loss, and it’s a credit to Belichick that the team was sufficiently prepared and focused to let go of their Week 1 disappointment.
“It’s a long season,” Belichick deadpanned after that opening loss to the Dolphins, responding to a question about the challenge of making sure players wouldn’t get down on themselves. “I don’t think it will be decided after this week’s games.”
Two weeks worth of NFL games don’t make any final decisions either, but getting to the finish line is a whole lot harder from an 0-2 hole. Belichick may love his bridges when they come in the form of points before and after halftime, but the kind that links one loss to another? No thanks.
Read more Patriots stories
- Dan Shaughnessy: Yes, OK, the Patriots won, but so far what have we learned about Mac Jones?
- On Football: The Patriots’ offense is struggling, but at least the defense can still win a game
- Christopher L. Gasper: Mitch Trubisky and the Steelers’ pop-gun offense is just what the Patriots needed
- ‘End the game:’ The Patriots’ clock-killing drive to seal the win is the type of progress they want to see
- How it happened: Patriots survive sloppy moments to beat Steelers for first win