PITTSBURGH — The reviews from the Patriots’ locker room weren’t exactly glowing.
“There were self-inflicted wounds that really hurt us,” Tom Brady said. “We could play better than we played today.”
“We didn’t do everything that we wanted to do,” left tackle Nate Solder said.
“Just shows that we need to improve,” safety Devin McCourty said.
Those types of quotes usually come from the losing locker room, not after defeating the Steelers by double digits at Heinz Field, one of the toughest places to play in the NFL.
The Patriots viewed their 27-16 win over the Steelers in two lights. One, it wasn’t good enough. But two — man, did it feel good to escape with a road win over one of the AFC’s top teams, even without Ben Roethlisberger.
In fact, the one person who wasn’t so negative about the win was the man Bill Parcells used to call “Dr. Doom.”
“First of all, this is a tough place to play. It’s a tough place to win,” Bill Belichick said. “We’ll take it.”
That the Patriots were able to win by 11 points despite a laundry list of mistakes, mostly self-inflicted, is a testament to their mental toughness. When the Steelers kicked a field goal early in the third quarter to pull to within 14-13, the Patriots — who had been forced to punt on three straight drives — pieced together two consecutive 75-yard touchdown drives to put the game out of reach.
“They kind of close the gap there on you, and the crowd’s going crazy, and you get glimpses of what your team’s all about,” said Brady, who finished with 222 yards passing, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. “Our guys hung in there and fought hard. It’s tough to win on the road in the NFL, especially against a good team.”
It’s also fairly incredible that the Patriots were able to win by 11 points despite their sloppy play.
They coughed up the football on their first offensive play of the game when Chris Hogan was stripped from behind. He did not play for the rest of the first quarter, presumably as punishment for lax ball security.
“That’s on me,” said Hogan, who finished with two catches for 25 yards. “Got to understand that there are going to be people coming from behind looking to strip. I was a little careless with it.”
The Patriots officially committed only four penalties for 40 yards (plus a holding call that was declined), but they were not the smartest penalties. Dont’a Hightower got busted 15 yards for unnecessary roughness for flying in with a forearm on Le’Veon Bell when he was already wrapped up by Jamie Collins.
Solder committed holding penalties on two consecutive plays — one was declined — that killed a drive early in the third quarter.
They had unseemly drops — Brandon Bolden and Julian Edelman both losing their concentration and dropping passes on third down that should have been huge catch-and-runs.
“We usually shoot ourselves in the foot more so than people forcing us to make mistakes, “ said tight end Martellus Bennett, who was quiet with just one catch for 5 yards. “When we’re moving backwards, it’s usually our own fault. It’s us stepping on our own foot, going offsides, holding, things like that. Just something we got to focus on, continue to get better at.”
The defense couldn’t lay a finger on backup quarterback Landry Jones, who had a respectable 281 yards passing, a touchdown, and an interception in his first start of the season. On Jones’s 47 dropbacks, the Patriots never sacked him, and hit him just three times.
And the Patriots’ special teams were uncharacteristically bad. The kickoff coverage team was porous, allowing all three returns to get past the 25-yard line. Punter Ryan Allen had a bad shank, a couple of other short punts, and averaged only 32.6 net yards.
Edelman fumbled a punt away in the fourth quarter. Bolden forgot to grab possession of a punt and batted it into the end zone, giving the Steelers the ball at the 20 instead of the 6.
“Not good enough. Not good enough,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said of his unit. “No matter what’s going on in the game, what the situation is, we have to play to our rules, play the way we’re coached, and we didn’t do a good job of that today.”
On top of it, Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point for the second week in a row, his struggles with the yips now getting very real.
“Right now I just stink, and I need to figure out how to get better,” said Gostkowski, who has missed three field goals in addition to two extra points. “Luckily the team keeps picking me up.”
Brady was not pleased with the team’s execution.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran players that have been around for a long time. We shouldn’t be messing too many things up,” he said. “We practice a lot together, played a lot of games together, we should take advantage of opportunities when we get them.”
Fortunately, the Steelers also made several mistakes. They missed two field goals, of 42 and 54 yards. Jones threw a bad interception in the end zone to Malcolm Butler to negate Hogan’s fumble. They got into the red zone four times but kicked three field goals. They committed 10 penalties for 85 yards, and left Rob Gronkowski wide open down the middle of the field twice in the second half, both of which led to Patriots scores.
“You knew the margin for error was going to be minimal,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “You can’t waste red zone trips, you have to come off blocks and make tackles in the run game, you can’t give up explosion plays. We did.”
So neither team was too proud of its execution. But only the Patriots emerged with a win and a 6-1 record.
“We have nine games left, and that’s a lot of football,” Slater said. “It’s important that we continue to improve and continue to be hard on ourselves, and hopefully we’ll continue to win, as well.”
Video: A few thoughts on the Patriots-Steelers game