PITTSBURGH — The hats and T-shirts will have to stay in mothballs for at least another week.
The Patriots hit another road block on their way to their 10th straight AFC East championship on Sunday when the desperate Steelers scored a 17-10 victory before 65,280 Terrible Towel-waving crazies at Heinz Field.
It was the second straight loss for New England, which hadn’t dropped back-to-back December games since 2002, and dropped them to 9-5 on the season and into the third playoff seed.
All five of the Patriots’ losses have come away from Gillette Stadium. They are 6-0 at home, where they will close out the regular season against the Bills and Jets.
“We’ve had some tough sledding on the road and that’s the way football is sometimes,’’ said Matthew Slater. “We really can’t feel sorry for ourselves, there’s really a lot for us to still play for. We certainly need to figure out who we are on the road as opposed to who we are at home.’’
The same problems continue to haunt the Patriots: penalties, the inability to convert on third down, and a failure to stop the run. New England was whistled for 14 accepted penalties for 106 yards and allowed 158 yards on 25 carries.
“Obviously we aren’t playing well enough to win, and it comes in a lot of different ways, turnovers, and just missed opportunities,’’ said Tom Brady, who completed 25 of 36 passes for 279 yards with a touchdown and his first red-zone interception in two seasons. “Too many plays . . . opportunities that we could do something with it and we just don’t. It’s football. We wish outcomes were different. Obviously this week, last week. We just have to get back to work.’’
The Patriots had one last chance to tie it after Chris Boswell’s 48-yard field goal gave the hosts a 17-10 lead.
Taking over with 2:30 left and no timeouts, Brady drove the Patriots to the Pittsburgh 11, but a holding penalty on Shaq Mason was a momentum killer. Brady ended the drive with three straight incompletions.
“I had a lot of confidence that we could tie it up,’’ Slater said.
IN THE LONG RUN
Jaylen Samuels was immense for the Steelers. Technically a third-stringer (Le’Veon Bell, James Conner), the rookie running back chewed through the Patriots’ defense for 142 yards on 19 carries.
Samuels revealed after the game that he had never had a 100-yard rushing game in high school or college.
It was the third straight week New England has struggled against the run. In last week’s loss in Miami, the Patriots yielded 189 yards on 21 carries.
“What we saw on tape [from Samuels] pretty much held true for the most part,’’ said defensive tackle Adam Butler. “I’m not sure 100 percent what went wrong, we’ve just got to wait and see after we watch the tape.’’
Safety Duron Harmon, who intercepted Ben Roethlisberger twice, is confident the run defense will get sorted out.
“We are going to fix it, for sure,’’ he said. “We are going to be better next week, and when we get another opportunity to play on the road, we will be better and do everything we can to get a win.’’
INTO THE WRONG HANDS
Julian Edelman, James White, and Josh Gordon all had costly drops of catchable Tom Brady passes — the latter two coming on third down to halt drives.
All three are normally surehanded receivers but had trouble corralling these passes at key moments.
The Patriots were able to convert just 3 of 10 on third down, preventing them from sustaining consistent, long scoring drives.
The lack of rhythm was reminiscent of the loss in Nashville, when the Patriots converted just 3 of 15 on third down — a season-low 20 percent.
CHANGE OF PLANS
The Patriots pulled the fire drill play at the end of the first half, lulling the Steelers into thinking they were going for it on fourth and 1 from their 40 with 32 seconds left.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin decided not to call time out, and Bill Belichick ran his punt team out en masse as the regular offense stormed off the field after Tom Brady already had lined up under center.
Pittsburgh elected to take a knee when it took possession after the punt.
Chris Hogan donned his invisible cloak once again, catching a 63-yard touchdown pass on New England’s first possession.
Hogan, who had kind of been a missing man in the offense in recent weeks, finished with two catches for 68 yards. He had 67 receiving yards in the previous five games.
Hogan had nine catches for 180 yards and a pair of scores against the Steelers in 2016 AFC Championship game, including several catches where it seemed as if Pittsburgh forgot to cover him.
That happened on his TD Sunday, as the Steelers’ defense bit hard on a play-action fake reverse to Julian Edelman and let Hogan run free across the middle. Brady hit him, and he raced down the right sideline for an easy score.
The Patriots did solid work on Pittsburgh’s terrific receiving tandem, holding Antonio Brown (four catches, 49 yards) and JuJu Smith-Schuster (four catches, 40 yards) in check for most of the game.
Things got heated several times between Brown and Stephon Gilmore, who most often drew him in coverage. The pair had to be separated by officials a couple of times after the whistle.
“Yeah, it was just normal battling,” Gilmore said. “[Brown] did a little dirty move and grabbed my helmet and threw me down — super dirty — but other than that we were just competing.’’
KEEP IN TOUCH
J.C. Jackson was on JuJu Smith-Schuster for most of the game, and the rookie did an exceptional job. The Steelers targeted Jackson on the first play of the game, but he maintained tight coverage on a deep sideline route.
Jackson gave up back-to-back receptions for 22 and 9 yards but shook it off quickly and continued to play solid defense.
“Playing corner, you find out who you really [are] when somebody catches balls on you, and they keep coming back at you,’’ Gilmore said. “You [have] to keep fighting and making plays, and he did that.’’
The Patriots pulled off a stunt that was worthy of the first act at a Flying Wallendas show in the second quarter.
Ryan Allen landed a 52-yard punt inside the 5-yard line and Jonathan Jones flew through the air and tipped it backward as he somersaulted into the end zone. Rex Burkhead, as if he was walking across a tight rope, leaped and punched it back, as well. Simultaneously, Matthew Slater had to do a flying split to avoid blocking Burkhead’s tip into the end zone.
The ball ended up on the 1-yard line and the play was upheld upon review — Steelers coach Mike Tomlin thought Burkhead’s tippy toes might have been on the goal line.
“I was just doing my best to keep it in the field,” Burkhead said. “ I didn’t think my foot was that close. but it actually was pretty close. Field position is huge in these games, so any little play like that that you can make, you do your best to do that.’’
Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive died when Duron Harmon picked off Ben Roethlisberger at the New England 24.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“We really don’t have a choice — we can’t let two losses turn into three. We just got to focus and get back on track,’’
Adam Butler, when asked how quickly the Patriots can get past this loss.
Julian Edelman needed some assistance after it appeared that he tweaked his right foot on New England’s penultimate drive. He spent some time flexing his leg on the sideline but didn’t miss any time and actually made his best catch of the day on the first play of the final drive, a 34-yard diving effort across the middle.
NEXT WEEK: VS. BUFFALO
The Patriots are back in the division as they host the 5-9 Bills looking for a season series sweep. Buffalo knocked off Matt Patricia’s Lions, 14-13, on Sunday.