PITTSBURGH — Who are these guys and what have they done with our beloved New England Patriots? The Patriots lost the type of game they habitually win against an opponent they usually beat in a spot where you usually can count on them to deliver a reaffirming bounce-back performance. If your faith in the Patriots and local football gods Bill Belichick and Tom Brady isn’t shaken at this point then you’re operating on reputation, not reality.
Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Steelers at Heinz Field was the surest sign yet that there is something fundamentally flawed about this version of the Patriots, the first one to lose at least five regular-season games since the 2009 team went 10-6.
The Patriots own the Steelers when it matters. They’re a favorite foil. The Patriots had won five straight against Pittsburgh and six of the seven meetings this decade entering Sunday’s game. Brady was 7-1 against Pittsburgh since Mike Tomlin became its coach in 2007, with 23 touchdowns and just one interception. This was not a game that a normal, Super Bowl-worthy Patriots team loses. This defeat was blood in the water for the rest of the NFL. New England is vulnerable.
The 2018 Patriots aren’t cut from the same cloth as their predecessors. It wasn’t just that the Patriots lost for the second straight week. It was how they lost. This is an atypical Patriots team making atypical mistakes.
Their offense looked ineffective against a team that they came in averaging 32.7 points per game against in their last seven matchups, at one point punting on five straight possessions. They committed a season-high 14 penalties for 106 yards, including a holding call by their best offensive lineman, Shaq Mason, on their final drive that turned second and 5 from the Pittsburgh 11 into second, third, and fourth and never, as the Patriots petered out on a potential tying drive. Brady threw his first red-zone interception in more than two years on the Patriots’ penultimate drive.
The Fightin’ Belichicks’ last two drives reached the Pittsburgh 11- and 5-yard lines and they came away with bubkes.
“We’re obviously not playing well enough to win,” said Brady, who was an empty-calories 25 of 36 for 279 yards with a touchdown and that awful interception down, 14-10. “It can come in a lot of different ways — turnovers, and just missed opportunities. That’s what it comes down to. Too many plays where we got opportunities to do stuff with it and we don’t. So, it’s football. I wish outcomes were different this week, last week. We just have to get back to work.”
The Patriots’ problems go beyond greater effort or work ethic. They’re just not as good as we’ve become accustomed to, and their margin for error is slimmer than usual. They have a smoke-and-mirrors offense, which wasn’t helped on Sunday by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’s infatuation with running back Rex Burkhead. Tight end Rob Gronkowski had just two catches for 21 yards, both came on the fourth-quarter drive that Brady threw away.
Their defense lacks speed, so to compensate the Patriots have resorted to six- and seven-defensive back packages that leave them vulnerable against the run. Pittsburgh ran the ball 25 times for 158 yards, and if the Steelers had stuck with the run instead of stubbornly and arrogantly trying to throw with Ben Roethlisberger they would have won the game without the attendant drama. The Patriots made rookie Jaylen Samuels (19 carries, 142 yards), who was a jack-of-all-trades, H-back/tight-end type in college, look like Franco Harris.
This was a more alarming loss than the Miracle in Miami the week before. The hook-and-lateral ending was a fluke, and even the best of Patriots teams misplace their mojo in Miami. This loss speaks to a diminished team holding the flag for the dynasty.
Both the Patriots and Steelers entered the game needing a reassuring victory. The Steelers had lost three straight. The Patriots needed a win to keep alive their hopes of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They knew by kickoff after Miami lost that a win would deliver them their 10th straight division title.
The game was a strange one. Two proud, accomplished, and prolific teams limping to the finish line while trying to hand victory to the other. The Steelers got there first.
The only thing keeping the Patriots in the game was the Steelers’ predictable hubris and lack of patience. In the first half, Pittsburgh had 15 first downs to just six for New England, and ran 35 offensive plays to the Patriots’ 22 to lead 14-7. Pittsburgh was averaging 8.4 yards per rush in the first half. The Steelers dropped back to throw 25 times.
Typical hard-headed Pittsburgh, unwilling or unable to adapt to the Patriots’ plan. The Steelers simply believe they’re better than you and that their talent will prevail in the end. The Patriots feast on that, except they couldn’t this time.
Trailing, 14-10, the Patriots were driving for the possible go-ahead points in the fourth quarter after Duron Harmon picked Roethlisberger (22 of 34 for 235 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions) for a second time. A third-and-8 pass to Rob Gronkowski, who had his only two receptions of the game on the drive, set the Patriots up with first and goal from the 5. On first down, Marcus Cannon committed a holding penalty to push the Patriots back to the 15. Two plays later, Brady tossed a horrendous jump ball under pressure that was intercepted by Joe Haden at the 4 with 7:43 left.
Pittsburgh turned that into a field goal drive that sapped 5:13 off the clock. Brady had one last chance, but self-inflicted wounds doomed the Patriots. That’s what is supposed to happen to the other guys, not the Patriots.
Where do the Patriots go from here? The loss dropped them to the third seed in the AFC. Unless the Houston Texans drop a game, the Patriots will be playing on wild-card weekend for the first time since 2009. The Patriots don’t do wild-card weekend.
It also would mean that they would be headed out on the road if they won their first playoff game. The road has been a dead end for the Patriots this season. With Sunday’s loss, they finished 3-5 away from the friendly confines of Fort Foxborough. They haven’t even played like a playoff team on the road this season, never mind a team that can win a playoff game on the road.
“You go out on the road you’ve got to play well and some things are a little more challenging on the road,” said Brady. “You have to embrace those things. We just haven’t done a great job with that.”
The mantra around the Patriots this time of year is that they want to be peaking. December is when they want to be playing their best football. They’re not. They’ve lost two straight.
The Patriots are running out of time to establish consistency and to play their best football, to play like the Patriots.
“We’ve got to have a great sense of urgency about ourselves here this next game,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “Let’s just talk about this next game. We’ve got to find a way to play well-executed, Patriot football. We don’t feel like we’ve done that this year yet.”
Perhaps the Patriots will be able to just flip a switch when it matters most. But the evidence is mounting that this Patriots team is not who they’re supposed to be. They’re not who we thought they were, and they’re not going to be.