Seventeen thoughts on the Steelers’ 17-10 victory over the Patriots . . .
1. It wasn’t the Patriots’ day, again. It’s not their month. And it’s reasonable to wonder if there’s any chance of this being their year. For the second straight week, the Patriots flashed self-destructive tendencies — so rare during this two-decade dynasty that seems to be creaking toward its end — that directly led to defeat. The Steelers ended their three-game losing streak with a 17-10 victory Sunday at Heinz Field, the second straight defeat for the Patriots after last Sunday’s final-play debacle at Miami. We’re not sure who the Patriots are right now. But it’s hard to assume anything especially good.
2. The Patriots are now 9-5 — their first five-loss season since 2009, perhaps the grimmest year of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. They’ve lost twice in December, a month they typically dominate as a tune-up for the intensity of the playoffs, for the first time since 2002. They committed 14 penalties — including five false starts — that cost them 106 yards. They can’t stop the run, and they still haven’t clinched the AFC East, though that, at least, is inevitable.
3. The Patriots had their chances. It was there for the taking in the fourth quarter . . . and then Brady threw it up for grabs. Trailing, 17-10, with 7 minutes and 51 seconds to play, the Patriots had the ball at the Steelers’ 16 after a couple of penalties had pushed them backward from the 5. On second down, Brady heaved up an alley-oop to . . . well, someone . . . along the right sideline. Steelers cornerback Joe Haden was in perfect position for an interception, and he made a catch that suggests he was a pretty good receiver in his youth. It was a superb play on his part, and an atrocious one by Brady.
4. Brady has of course led greater comebacks on grander stages, and for a fleeting moment it seemed like might lead one here. On the first play after the two-minute mark, Brady found Julian Edelman for 34 yards to the Pittsburgh 31. Three straight completions to James White for a total of 20 yards got the Patriots to the Pittsburgh 11.
5. Then, weirdly and perhaps appropriately too, it went haywire. Shaq Mason was called for holding on an incomplete pass, then Brady took three shots at the end zone — with no obvious option on any play — to turn it over on downs and seal the Steelers victory. Brady missed James White wide open in the flat on one of the end zone throws, and all of the throws seemed rushed by at least a fraction of a second. Brady has made more strange mistakes in the past two weeks than I can recall him having in back-to-back games for a long time.
6. There were other inexplicable decisions on offense, especially regarding player usage. Josh Gordon wasn’t on the field for the final play. Rob Gronkowski had just two catches for 21 yards, none in the first half. White had just seven touches, and appeared to be an afterthought right up until the final drive. That’s the second straight week it seems like he has been underutilized — he had just six touches against the Dolphins.
7. The penalties were the Patriots’ most annoying recurring issue, but their inability (again) to stop the run was probably even more damaging. Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels got the start only because James Conner was out for the second straight week with an ankle injury. Samuels entered with 23 carries for 59 yards on the season. He finished with a stat line that looked like something out of Le’Veon Bell’s 2016 season, rushing 19 times for 142 yards and picking up another 30 yards on two catches.
8. The Patriots showed big-play ability early. Chris Hogan, who has had a frustrating if not entirely unproductive season, got wide open on the Patriots’ third play from scrimmage and took Brady’s throw 63 suspense-free yards to tie the game at 7. Who knew then that it would be their only touchdown of the day and that they’d score just 3 more points?
9. You’d think the Steelers would have some awareness of Hogan’s whereabouts at all times given that he had 9 catches for 180 yards against them in the 2016 AFC Championship game. He didn’t have another catch in this one, but he did pick up a 23-yard pass interference penalty on third and 16 to keep a third-quarter drive alive. The Patriots ended up getting a Stephen Gostkowski field goal to cut the Steelers lead to 14-10.
10. When Julian Edelman dropped a routine Brady pass in the first quarter, analyst Tony Romo said, “That’s rare right there, hit him in the chest.” It’s not rare, though. Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon entered Sunday with a league-leading eight drops. Sunday’s drop was Edelman’s eighth, and remember, he missed the first four games. It’s OK to acknowledge his hands haven’t been great this year, especially recently. Edelman had another drop in the second quarter.
11. Romo was right more often than not, though. When Jonathan Jones was called for pass interference on the Steelers’ go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter — a late flag called by the back judge who was so far away he might as well have been in Punxsutawney — Romo said, “He really doesn’t do anything.”
12. The Steelers went up 14-7 on the next play, when the great Antonio Brown beat Jason McCourty for a 17-yard touchdown. There was a flag on the Patriots on that play too, in case you were hoping for a makeup call there.
13. Cordarrelle Patterson came to the Patriots known as a player with great skill in the open field, but one who didn’t necessarily know all branches of the route tree. He’s still great in space, and perhaps not the most trustworthy route runner, but the revelation has been his toughness and determination.
14. That’s not just about the turns he’s taken as a conventional running back when the Patriots were shorthanded. He fights for every yard, which was never more evident than his spinning, twisting, not-down-yet desperation to keep the final drive of the first half alive. Replay showed his shin was down before he reached the first-down marker, but it didn’t diminish the appreciation of the effort.
15. Speaking of hustle plays, you’ll never see better teamwork on a coverage team than the effort Jonathan Jones, Rex Burkhead, Matthew Slater, and Ramon Humber put in to down a punt in the first half. Jones sprinted to try to keep Ryan Allen’s punt out of the end zone, Burkhead tight-roped the goal line while batting it back out, Slater leaped into the Matrix to make sure the ball didn’t touch him, and Humber was there to get the glory of downing the ball. I’m not sure I’ve ever watched the downing of a punt multiple times on video until this one.
16. The only way the Steelers’ first possession could have been more impressive is if they’d found a way to reenact the Immaculate Reception en route to the end zone. Pittsburgh went 70 yards in 11 plays, grinding 6 minutes and 20 seconds off the clock, to take a 7-0 lead on the game’s first series. Tight end Vance McDonald did the touchdown honors, but Samuels was the star of the drive, picking up 39 yards on four carries, including a 25-yard burst.
17. Man, those AFC East Champion hats and T-shirts have been in storage a little longer than expected, huh?