PITTSBURGH — Have we reached the expiration date on the Patriots dynasty?
We’ve wondered this before. And each time the Patriots have answered with another surge to a Super Bowl. That could still happen again between now and February. The weakened 2018 Patriots should be able to win their final two regular-season games (home layups with the Bills and Jets) and perhaps the Chiefs, Chargers, Texans, Ravens, Steelers, and Colts will all go south before the start of the NFL tournament. It’s possible that these Patriots could still secure a first-round bye, have their way in January, win a couple of games at Gillette, and mock their detractors on the way to Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII.
“We’re still in a decent position,’’ offered Tom Brady. “We’ve still got a lot of football ahead.’’
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But it doesn’t feel like another Patriots playoff surge is coming, does it? There comes a time when mystique and aura are nothing more than smoke and mirrors. There comes a time when being smarter is not enough, when waiting for the other guy to step on his own appendage will not guarantee victory. There comes a time when your own ability and execution are more important than all the good things that have happened before. There comes a time when you will not get the benefit of some strange rule that will be changed during the offseason. There come a time when assuming the other guy will lose his mind and hand you the game is more hope than reality.
Sunday at Heinz Field was that time. The Patriots wounded themselves with a hail of stupid penalties (14 for 106 yards), and dropped a bunch of passes in a thoroughly demoralizing 17-10 loss to the traditionally tragic Pittsburgh Steelers. New England again demonstrated that it cannot stop anybody’s running game, and 40-something Brady threw a horrible, late-game, red-zone pick — then was unable to finish a potential tying drive when the Patriots stormed to the Steelers’ 11 in the closing seconds.
The short-term, sum total of all this is that the Patriots dropped to the No. 3 seed in the AFC bakeoff, and risk the distasteful prospect of playing on wild-card weekend when the playoffs start in January. The Bill Belichick-Brady Patriots have never advanced to a Super Bowl after playing on wild-card weekend.
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The Patriots and their fans also know that Sunday’s loss increases the chance that they will have to (gulp) win a postseason road game in order to get where they want to go. New England hasn’t won a road playoff game since January 2007.
Winning on the road in the playoffs feels especially unlikely this year.
Your 2018 Patriots finished 3-5 away from Gillette. Included in this abysmal road record are wins over the Bills and Jets, which should be discounted on the scale of abject suck.
So there you go, Patriot Nation. Brace yoursevles for a couple of weeks of Trent Dilfer-esque “They’re not good anymore!’’ Find out what it’s like in other markets where your playoff team actually has to play away from home and maybe win three games to get to the Super Bowl.
(Before we go any further, let me ’fess up that I was one of those who thought the Patriots would win in Pittsburgh even though they perhaps don’t have a better team than the Steelers. Eighteen years of history have taught me to pick the Patriots every time. I believed that Brady’s career dominance of Pittsburgh — 11-2 going in — would be enough. I believed the Steelers would panic and blow the game at the end. I was wrong. Now let’s return to our regularly scheduled programming.)
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“Give the Steelers credit,’’ Belichick mumbled after the dismal loss. “That’s a good football team. They made a few more plays than we did.’’
Not good enough, Bill. Granted, nobody died (this was Belichick’s response when we overreacted to the stunning loss in Miami), but it feels like the Patriot Way is on life support. This team is playing in the image of the 2009 Belichick edition, a group Hoodie acknowledged he never liked. These guys, like those guys, have failed to establish an identity. They have failed to capitalize on mistakes of the opponent. And in atypical Patriot fashion, they are finishing the season with a whimper. New England traditionally gets better at the end of the year. These Patriots have lost three of their last five, and two straight in December. That simply never happens.
Brady’s bad throw in the middle of the fourth quarter was the exclamation point on the sorry loss at Heinz. The Patriots were trailing, 14-10, and looked ready to take the lead when Rob Gronkowski caught a pass and was tackled at the Steelers’ 5. More than eight minutes remained and the Patriots seemed certain to take the lead and break the will of the fragile Steelers. Then came a holding call. Then Brady was pressured and heaved the ball toward the right sideline.
“I was trying to flick it out bounds, not take a sack. Can’t happen,’’ Brady said.
His toss failed to soar out of bounds (arm strength, or defensive pressure?). Instead, it triggered a jump ball where Steelers cornerback Joe Haden made the grab, leaping between Gronk and a hobbled Julian Edelman.
The play changed everything. It was like something Peyton Manning or Ben Roethlisberger would have done in the good old days. It was un-Brady like. And it allowed the skittish Steelers to believe they could win.
What happens now, we asked Belichick?
“Get ready for Buffalo this week,’’ said the coach.
That doesn’t really cut it this time, does it New England fans? Suddenly the shoe is on the other foot. The tomatoes are in the other can.
The Patriots season just took a bad turn for the worse and “We’re on to Buffalo’’ inspires little confidence that this season is going to end well.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy