In a season full of disappointments for these Patriots, this had to be the most disheartening aspect of Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Steelers:
Pittsburgh tried time and time again to hand the Patriots this one — seven times, by my count — just like they have countless other times during Tom Brady‘s run of dominance against Western Pennsylvania’s favored sons (11-2 with five-straight wins).
Only this time, this group of Patriots was unable to accept the many gifts bestowed upon them.
Actually, after 14 games, incapable might be the operative word. It’s not like the Steelers kept the Patriots from cashing in — the Sons of Belichick did it all to themselves.
The loss now leaves the Patriots at 9-5 and facing the prospect of hosting a playoff game on wild-card weekend, and then winning two road games to reach another Super Bowl. The 2018 Patriots dropped to 3-5 on the road, joining the 2000 and ’09 versions in the Belichick era with at least five road defeats.
It’s never, ever a good thing when you’re drawing comparisons to Belichick’s inaugural, pre-Brady squad, or the team that was immortalized on “A Football Life” when Belichick said to Brady, “I just can’t get these guys to play the way I want them to.”
Wonder if Belichick had another version of that statement on the Heinz Field sidelines Sunday? It would have fit perfectly.
These Patriots … they just couldn’t make the plays they wanted to.
Gift No. 1
The Steelers were leading 14-7 in the second quarter and looking for more after the Patriots had the second of what would be five-straight possessions to end in a punt and not total more than 32 yards. But Ben Roethlisberger threw one of his usual unforced interceptions over the head of JuJu Smith-Schuster and into the always-waiting arms of Duron Harmon.
In the past, the Patriots would have chuckled, taken the ball and scored, and then waited for Pittsburgh to continue to combust.
Not this version. On first down, Brady felt pressure against a three-man rush and was nearly got picked off himself going to Rob Gronkowski. On second down, Brady threw short to Julian Edelman. On third down, Marcus Cannon got whipped by T.J. Watt (a running theme in this game) and forced Brady to throw wide of James White.
Gift No. 2
Steelers get the ball back, and despite running all over the interior of a Patriots’ defensive line (namely Malcom Brown) like everyone has the past three games, they throw five-straight passes to give the Patriots the ball back with 3:03 remaining. It was a chance for the Patriots to execute the dreaded double-score protocol and dust Pittsburgh.
The Patriots’ grand total on their next two possessions? Ten plays, 38 yards, two first downs and zero points.
Gifts No. 3, 4 and 5
Steelers had a chance to push their lead to 10 points on their first second-half possession. They marched all the way to the 4-yard line before Roethlisberger was flagged for intentional grounding and Chris Boswell
Surely, the Patriots were going to make the Steelers pay at that point. Right?
After finally discovering they could run against a Steelers defense that was blanketing Gronkowski and Edelman with coverage, the Patriots took a pass interference penalty on third and 16 and rammed the ball down the Steelers’ throat with seven carries between Sony Michel and Rex Bur
On third-and-4 from the Steelers’ 13-yard line, the Patriots had the perfect play call — a screen behind Gronkowski and Chris Hogan — but the play came up 1 yard short because Hogan, despite having his man in ideal position on his outside shoulder, failed to execute his block. Patriots only get a field goal to cut the lead to 14-10.
Gift No. 6
Roethlisberger was not done trying to hand the game to the Patriots. He threw another ball into traffic and the combination of Stephon Gilmore and Harmon came up with an interception at midfield.
You know that everyone in Heinz Field was thinking the same thing: Here we go again, gifting the Patriots and Brady another victory. And the Patriots looked the part for most of the drive, including a third-down conversion by Gronkowski where he actually broke a tackle and muscled to give the Patriots first and goal at the Pittsburgh 5-yard line.
Then, it was disaster after disaster.
Cannon was called for holding when he tackled Stephon Tuitt. A screen went for minus-1. On second down, David Andrews (Tuitt) and Trent Brown (Cam Heyward) both allowed pressure on Brady, who decided it was a good idea to try to throw the ball away from the opposite hashmark (26.7 yards into the field) 20 yards down the field. That’s 33.36 yards in the air (for those math-inclined #hypotenuse) off his back foot. Brady said after the game he was trying to throw it away … I think he was trying to give Edelman or Gronkowski a chance to make a play where no one else could. Only, Joe Haden had other ideas.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 16, 2018
Gift No. 7
Even with all that, the Patriots still had a chance to tie the game and force overtime with a back-breaking touchdown drive when the Steelers could only manage a field goal and left 2:30 on the clock.
Patriots got down to the Steelers’ 11 with 37 seconds remaining. That’s when Shaq Mason took his turn holding Tuitt to move the ball back to the 21-yard line. Patriots get to fourth down, and Brady threw up a prayer between both Edelman and Gronkowski (who were double covered) to seal the loss for New England.
It’s one thing to lose on the road. Losing to the Steelers can (sometimes) be explained — they’re an extremely talented lot. Heck, sometimes the other team is just better on that one given Sunday or Monday or Thursday.
But to drop a meaningful game — and it was that, with a first-round bye on the line — when the other team is held to just 17 points and gives you opportunity after opportunity to run home with a victory?
That’s something altogether different.
That’s the story of the 2018 Patriots: They look the part, and act like it sometimes. But when it comes to putting it all together … something just isn’t right.
Editor's note: For more exclusive Patriots, Bruins and Red Sox coverage, visit BostonSportsJournal.com, where Greg Bedard is the founder, owner and NFL analyst. Hey, you have to keep your friends close and your enemies closer, right?
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