FOXBOROUGH — There were so many flags, it was as if the referees thought they were Terrible Towels.
On the way to an ugly 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, a season-high 14 penalties cost the Patriots 104 yards. The 14 flags were one shy of the most penalties in any game in the Bill Belichick era (15 for 163 yards in 30-7 road win over Vikings in Week 2 of 2014).
The offensive line was responsible for the bulk of the flags Sunday, with four holding calls and four false starts (another false start was called on holder Ryan Allen as he flinched setting up for a field goal in the third quarter).
Running it all back on video was painful for the typically disciplined offensive line.
“It’s not good,” said center David Andrews. “We’re a pretty prideful group. We take a lot of pride in that. We’ve been letting our teammates down. It’s not easy when you’re watching the film and you’ve got a good play and you’re stopping yourself and putting yourself in third and 15, second and 15. That’s a hard way to play football.”
Penalties hadn’t been much of an issue for the Patriots this season. As of Monday, they were tied for the sixth-fewest flags in the NFL.
But Sunday, the Patriots came up empty on all three of their trips to the red zone, sabotaging themselves with miscues.
Twice in the fourth quarter, holding calls undermined promising drives. Marcus Cannon was whistled for one on a run by Sony Michel that would’ve put the Patriots at the Steelers’ 2. Instead, the penalty made it first and 15 from the 15 and Tom Brady threw an interception two plays later.
On the final drive, the Patriots were in a second-and-5 situation on the Steelers’ 11, but a holding call on Shaq Mason pushed them back to the 21.
“We’ve just got to play better football,” Andrews said. “We can’t do things to hurt ourselves. You look at things, the penalties — we’re moving the ball in the red zone and we’re getting penalties — we can’t do that. A lot of that falls on us up front and we have to do a better job of that.”
After the game, Brady mentioned that referee John Parry told him that the officials were making an effort to call holding penalties tighter.
Andrews said the officiating was no excuse.
“We have to block better,” Andrews said. “You can’t just sit there and hope and pray that they call something or don’t call something. So we have to do a better job with that. It’s not anyone’s job but ours.
“Offsides penalties are fundamentals, necessarily. But the holdings and things like that, that’s all a result of poor fundamentals. So we have to do a better job with that and hold ourselves accountable for it.”
Come a long way
Targets have been few and far between for Chris Hogan in recent weeks, but he made the most of an early opportunity in the first quarter against the Steelers, finding himself wide open over the middle and turning an easy throw from Brady into a 63-yard touchdown.
It was the Patriots’ longest play of the season. It was Hogan’s longest play since 2016 when he caught a 79-yarder.
“I think it’s just good play design,” Hogan said. “The offensive line blocked well. Josh [Gordon] on the other side, ran a good route. That kind of took away the safety defender and pretty much everyone else back there. Tommy stepped up and made a good throw.”
Hogan’s three targets were the most looks he’s gotten since Week 7 against Chicago. The touchdown was his first since Week 2, when he found the end zone twice against Jacksonville.
Back in March, the Patriots swung a deal with the Browns to land defensive tackle Danny Shelton. He was on the field for each of the first 11 games, including a start in October against the Chiefs.
But Sunday, Danny Shelton was once again a healthy scratch. He’s been inactive for each of the past three games. Belichick said the decision was based on the opponent.
“It’s not about any individual player,” Belichick said. “It’s about each week we’re allowed to activate 46 of our 53-man roster players to play, and so that’s what we do, and we activate those players based on the particular opponent and game that we’re playing.
“Obviously, a player could potentially not be activated because of injury, but regardless, there are always some players – almost always, I would say – there are some players that could play in the game, but you can’t take all of them because you can only take 46. So, we take the 46 players that we think will give us the best opportunity to win that particular week.”
A winner with fans
The Patriots didn’t get the outcome they wanted Sunday, but the network that showed the game certainly did.
Patriots-Steelers was the highest-rated NFL game of the season on any network, earning a 16.5 household rating and 32 share nationally, per CBS and Nielsen Media Research.
That beats the Week 14 Eagles-Cowboys game on Fox, which had previously been the highest-rated game this season (16.0).
In the Boston market, the game earned a 41.9 rating and a 65 share. The 41.9 rating is the highest of the season in the market, topping the 39.8 rating the Patriots-Vikings matchup got on Fox two weeks ago.
Ben Volin and Chad Finn of the Globe staff contributed. Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.