PITTSBURGH — Welcome to the rat race, Patriots.
The Patriots are usually the team that has December in their back pocket. They are the team that has spent the first three months figuring out exactly who they are, how they need to be coached in certain situations and executing better than anyone.
That hasn’t happened. Not this year.
The Patriots were in prime position before the Miami Miracle. But breakdowns in execution on the final play led to the 69-yard stake in the heart and a 34-33 loss that dropped them to 9-4 instead of 10-3. No problem. Gather yourself and take care of a Pittsburgh that just lost its third straight to the 2-10 Raiders.
No problem, that is, unless you commit 14 penalties for 105 yards and let Pittsburgh walk away with a 17-10 game Sunday here at Heinz Field that they had every intention of handing you on a steel platter.
“We obviously aren’t trying to commit those penalties, but we got them so we have to do a better job,” Bill Belichick told me after the contest. “We have to eliminate them. It’s too many.”
These Patriots are facing a much different opponent this year in December – themselves. The Patriots have lost back-to-back games in the final four weeks of the season for just the third time the first time since 2002.
At home, they appear to be mostly the same old Patriots. On the road though, different story. In all five losses, they were dominated at the point of attack, losing the line of scrimmage badly on both sides of the ball. How else to explain allowing a third string running back by the name of Jaylen Samuels to go for over seven yards a carry and 142 yards?
They are not handling situational football well at all. They are shooting themselves in the foot with penalties and mental mistakes, like Tom Brady failing to throw the ball out of bounds as he was getting pressured in the fourth quarter, allowing Joe Haden to pick it off at the Steelers 4.
“You know, they say penalties in the red area are pretty much the difference in a game, so we need to do a better job there,” Belichick said. “It’s one of those typical tough football games against the Steelers, and like I said, they did a little more than we did tonight. That’s pretty much the story the way I saw it.”
The Patriots were 1-for-7 to open the game on third down before finishing 3-for-10. The Patriots converted just one first down on the first drive of the second half before punting. The Steelers, by comparison were 4-for-9 on third down, with two in the clutch late.
Another example? The Patriots had two great chances to stop Roethlisberger with five minutes left and down just 14-10. Instead, the Steelers convert both and go down the field and allow a field goal that kept the Patriots in the game but chewed up over five minutes of the fourth quarter clock.
The Patriots hadn’t lost five games since 2009. The Patriots hadn’t finished with a losing record since 2009. And if they don’t figure it out soon, there’s another 2009 similarity they could be facing, playing a game on Wild Card weekend, losing that infamous 33-14 game to the Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots have advanced to the Super Bowl eight times under Brady and Belichick. Not once have they done so by winning three games to get there. And if anything has been learned about these Patriots, they have a real hard time winning away from Gillette this season. The Patriots have just three road playoff wins in the Belichick-Brady era, twice on the field they lost Sunday and once in San Diego.
“Obviously, we aren’t playing well enough to win, and it comes in a lot of different ways, turnovers, and just missed opportunities,” said Brady, who finished 25-of-36 for 279 yards, with a touchdown and a costly interception. “That’s what it comes down to. 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.”
Certainly the schedule-maker has done the Patriots a favor with the Bills and Jets at home to finish the season. But maybe those games aren’t the layups we figured weeks ago. That’s because it’s not the Bills and Jets the Patriots are worried about. It’s themselves.
Instead of pulling ahead and taking aim on locking up the No. 1 or 2 seed in the AFC, the 9-5 Patriots now find themselves in the No. 3 spot, battling with the likes of Houston, Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the Colts for playoff position in the AFC just like everyone else. After Sunday, the Chiefs and Chargers appear to be on a level above the Patriots. When was the last time you remember saying that about the Patriots in mid-December?
There’s still time for the Patriots to figure out the issues that have given them problems all season but the clock is ticking.