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BEN VOLIN | INSTANT ANALYSIS

Bailey Zappe’s winning effort begs the question: What took so long to change quarterbacks?

Patriots break losing streak with Bailey Zappe in as QB
WATCH: What took so long to make a change? And is Belichick doing what’s best for the team? Sports columnist Tara Sullivan and reporter Conor Ryan weigh in.

PITTSBURGH — Instant analysis from the Patriots’ 21-18 win over the Steelers Thursday night:

⋅ It’s unlikely that the Patriots, now 3-10, would be appreciably better this year if Bailey Zappe had started more games. And we can’t forget Zappe’s performance Sunday, when the Patriots were shut out by the Chargers and didn’t even reach the red zone (though the horrendous weather was a valid excuse).

But Zappe’s performance Thursday night does beg the question: What took Bill Belichick so long to start Zappe over Mac Jones?

It has been clear for several weeks that Jones is mentally broken. His confidence is shot, as is his teammates’ confidence in him.

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There was a 38-3 loss to the Cowboys, a 34-0 shutout by the Saints, and bad losses to the Raiders, Commanders, Colts, and Giants. Jones’s mechanics and footwork melted down, he couldn’t stop throwing crippling interceptions, and the Patriots devolved into the worst offense in the NFL.

Four times Jones was benched for performance this year. Yet the first three times he still got his job back the next week. It made little sense then, and even less after watching Zappe provide a spark against the Steelers, throwing for 240 yards and three touchdowns in the win.

Thursday night, Zappe was everything Jones hasn’t been — poised in the pocket, quick with his reads and throws, and able to connect on a few big plays downfield. His 37-yard completion to JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Patriots’ first of at least 30 air yards all season.

And Zappe did it without the Patriots’ top running back (Rhamondre Stevenson) and top three receivers (Kendrick Bourne, Demario Douglas, and DeVante Parker). So much for the argument that Jones didn’t have enough weapons.

Jones had a great game against the Bills in October, which likely bought him a few extra starts. But sticking with Jones saddled the Patriots with extra losses. The time to switch to Zappe was after the Saints loss (Jones’s second benching). Or at the very least, after the Colts loss in Germany.

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It is baffling that Belichick stuck with Jones for so long when it was clearly to the detriment of the team.

Was it because Jones is a former first-round pick, and therefore he gets a longer leash?

Was it that Zappe didn’t impress in training camp and continued to struggle in practice during the regular season?

Is it that the Krafts told Belichick he had to keep playing Jones?

Or was it Belichick sticking it to the Krafts for making him play a quarterback he didn’t want, or sticking it to Jones for the stuff that went on behind the scenes last year with the coaching staff?

It’s tough to imagine the Patriots being a playoff contender if Zappe had started more games. But they probably would have a more respectable record, and Belichick’s seat wouldn’t be quite as hot.

Bailey Zappe threw three touchdown passes en route to the Patriots' first win since October.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

⋅ I wrote Sunday after the Patriots’ shutout loss that Zappe “isn’t the answer, either,” at quarterback, and that remains true. The team should still look to the draft for a long-term answer at the position.

But boy, was I dead wrong with this line: “there was no Zappe magic because he doesn’t have any magic to provide.” Zappe proved in Thursday night’s surprising win that he can provide a spark and make clutch, winning plays, which have been in short order this year in New England.

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Zappe led the Patriots to their first opening-possession touchdown of the season and the offense went 2 for 2 in the red zone. He helped the Patriots jump out to a 21-3 lead, their biggest of the season. He got little-used receivers involved — Smith-Schuster had a season high 90 yards, Ezekiel Elliott had a season-high seven catches for 72 yards and his first touchdown catch, Hunter Henry caught his fourth and fifth TDs of the season, and even Tyquan Thornton had three catches.

Zappe looked confident, changing the play at the line of scrimmage and hitting Smith-Schuster for 37 yards. He showed great timing and accuracy on a throw to Smith-Schuster over the middle for 17 yards. He threaded a beautiful 24-yard touchdown to Henry just over the outstretched hand of a defender. Even the unsuccessful plays were good, with Zappe checking down short of the sticks on some third-down throws. That’s a lot better than an interception.

He didn’t get anything going in the second half, and he made a few risky throws into tight coverage, one of which was intercepted in the third quarter. But Zappe did enough to earn the starting job for the final four games.

⋅ With Stevenson out with an ankle injury, Elliott responded with his best game of the season, with 140 total yards and a touchdown on 29 touches, his most since 2019. He only rushed for 68 yards on 22 carries, but they were hard-earned against a strong Steelers defense. He was terrific in the pass game, leading the Patriots with eight targets and seven catches. And Elliott saved the day on Mykal Walker’s interception, tackling him at the 15 and giving the Patriots a chance to make a defensive stop.

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⋅ It sounds like a broken record at this point, but J.C. Jackson is clearly not himself after last year’s torn meniscus, and opposing teams won’t stop picking on the cornerback.

Jackson was called for pass interference to wipe out his interception in the first quarter. He was beaten by Diontae Johnson for a 25-yard touchdown in the second quarter. And he committed pass interference on Pat Freiermuth in the end zone in the fourth quarter, leading to the Steelers’ second touchdown. Jackson is playing because the Patriots don’t really have anyone else, but he has been a liability since being reacquired.

⋅ Speaking of broken records, Belichick made yet another ultra-conservative decision in the fourth quarter, sending in the punt team on fourth and 1 from the Patriots’ 44 with 8:31 left. The punt was boomed into the end zone for a touchback, but the result is beside the point.

The Patriots are 2-10. The season is already over. Picking up the first down can continue the drive and bleed valuable clock. WHY NOT GO FOR IT?

Show a little confidence in your offense to pick up 1 measly yard. Coach to win.

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Instead, Belichick told his players the opposite message, that he doesn’t believe in them and that he’s coaching not to lose.

The Patriots held on for the win, so all’s well that ends well. But for all the talk about how Belichick is still a great game day coach, his fourth-down decisions leave a lot to be desired.

⋅ Another game, another breakdown by the Patriots’ special teams. This one was a blocked punt in the fourth quarter by the Steelers’ Miles Killebrew, who got around Ty Montgomery on the edge and got one hand on the ball. The first block allowed by the Patriots this season gave the Steelers great field position to score their second touchdown. Montgomery was pulled off the punt team on the next opportunity, replaced by Kyle Dugger.

⋅ Have to wonder if Mike Tomlin’s seat is going to get a little hot if the Steelers’ season keeps slipping away.

They have now lost consecutive games at home to 2-10 teams (Cardinals and Patriots). The quarterback situation has been a disaster, with Kenny Pickett struggling all year before getting injured Sunday and Mitch Trubisky getting voraciously booed Thursday night. And at 7-6, the Steelers are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

Tomlin has had a phenomenal 17-year run with the Steelers. But as with Belichick and the Patriots, the Steelers may want to start considering moving on to their next coach.

Read more about the Patriots’ win over the Steelers


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com.