By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — The New England Patriots are a unique franchise, for a number of reasons. Among them is the tendency for naysayers and doubters to propagate throughout each and every season — and that’s locally speaking. Despite the Patriots being in a class by themselves as the best post-2000 team in the NFL, fans and observers with a keen eye for true excellence tend to chip away at any and all perceived weaknesses in the team.

Sunday was a big win for those people.

Frankly, much of the criticism heaped upon this year’s team could rightfully have been classified as premature. Until Sunday.

On Sunday, in Pittsburgh, everything was laid out in front of them. The stakes were well-established. And the inspiration to remove the disgusting taste of the Miami meltdown was obvious.

The Patriots took the field with the chance to put their foot on the throat of a perennial AFC rival, and despite having every reason in the world to deliver, the team simply fell flat. In just about every area possible, the Patriots were the worse team on Sunday in Pittsburgh.

As a result, the entirety of the Patriots’ season has been reshaped. The early-season losses in Jacksonville and Detroit were bad, but they had essentially been offset with eight wins in the following nine weeks. The debacle in Miami was embarrassing, but even that left the Patriots in a position from which they could easily recover. All they simply had to do was play above-average football for the final three weeks of the season, and a first-round bye was theirs.

Instead, the football the Patriots played on Sunday could be described as average at best. And as a result, barring an unforeseen late-season slip-up by the Texans, the Patriots will be playing on wild card weekend for the first time since 2009.

And any time “Patriots” and “2009” are used in the same sentence, it’s never a good sign for the football team that calls Foxboro home.

Yet now, after barely showing up in a Week 15 road game that carried a lot of meaning, we’re left with no choice. The Patriots finished their road record with a losing record, the first time they’ve done that since … 2009. The Patriots have lost a fifth game in a regular season for the first time since … 2009. Anyone who’s been saying “this year feels different” has been vindicated.

(An odd thing for which to be vindicated, but a thing for which to be vindicated nonetheless.)

That all doesn’t eliminate the Patriots from having a chance to win the Super Bowl, but is to flatly state that the Patriots’ chances are no greater or worse than, say, the Ravens, or the Texans, or the Colts. (Well, probably not the Colts.)

In 2018, the Patriots — despite Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s continued presence — are just another team in 2018. Sunday’s loss made the crystal clear.

Now it’s time to dissect that 17-10 loss in Pittsburgh with all of the leftover thoughts, and we’re going to start by spotlighting three distinct areas where the Patriots lost the game.

–First Failure: Run Defense. Last week, the Patriots let Brandon Bolden sextuple his season total for rushing yards while also scoring two touchdowns after being kept out of the end zone for four years. This week, the failure was arguably worse.

With Le’Veon Bell long gone, and with James Conner injured, the Steelers turned to Jaylen Samuels as their lead back. The rookie entered the game with a dreadful 2.6-yard average, gaining just 59 yards all year on 23 carries. Against the Patriots, he ran for 142 yards on 19 carries — a 7.5-yard average. With Stevan Ridley chipping in with 16 yards on three carries, Pittsburgh’s running backs averaged 7.2 yards per carry against the Patriots.

It was obviously the biggest game of Samuels’ young NFL career … but it was also better than any of the 50 collegiate games he suited up for at NC State. Samuels’ single-game career high in college was a whopping 74 yards, as he was a tight end/running back hybrid who was considered much more of a receiver than a runner. Against the Patriots, though, he was Gale Sayers.

Making this defensive failure even more unforgivable is the fact that the Steelers’ rushing offense had been completely dead in the water for the past month. Pittsburgh ran for 26 yards at Jacksonville, before rushing for 75 yards at Denver, and 65 yards against the Chargers. Last week in Oakland, Pittsburgh ran for 40 yards. Against the Patriots, they ran for 158 yards. That came after the Patriots allowed a season-high 189 rushing yards a week prior.

It’s been bad by Patriots standards, and it’s been bad by anyone’s standards:

Against Pittsburgh, every level of the Patriots’ defense offered little resistance in the run game. And that doesn’t appear to be something that’s particularly fixable for the postseason.

–Second Failure: Red Zone Offense. It’s been an issue all year. Brady’s been asked about it. Belichick’s been asked about it. Josh McDaniels has been asked about it. Every offensive player has been asked about it.

Nobody has an answer.

And for as bad as it’s been all year, it was at its worst on Sunday. The Patriots made two trips into the red zone where they did a better job of moving backward than forward. The only other red zone trip led to the settling for a field goal. That’s just not Patriots football.

We’ll get into the specifics of why these drives were so bad, but really, the results say all that needs to be said: Three red zone trips, three total points.

–Third failure: Penalties. Fourteen penalties, 106 yards. That’s atrocious. That’s the type of play we’d expect out of a Jeff Fisher-coached team, not a squad run by Bill Belichick.

And surely, as is the case with any game, you could quibble on a few of them. The defensive holding penalty on Malcom Brown, or the pass interference penalty on Jonathan Jones stand out as options.

But when you get penalized 14 times, it’s not a coincidence, and it’s not a stretch of bad luck, and it’s certainly not a case of the NFL conspiring against you. It’s a case of a team playing undisciplined football, something that has popped up more often for this year’s team than most of us have grown accustomed to seeing.

They were killers, too, these penalties. A Marcus Cannon false start turned a second-and-4 into a second-and-9; Cordarrelle Patterson was ruled on replay to have been down a yard shy of the sticks on the following third down, and the Patriots punted. (Kyle Van Noy was penalized on the punt, too, for good measure.) The Patriots drove to the Steelers’ 13-yard line before Trent Brown jumped early. The Patriots did make up those yards and get a new set of downs … before Cannon took a holding penalty to push the Patriots back to the 15 from the 5. Two plays later, Brady threw a pick. Looking to maintain a game-tying drive, Joe Thuney was penalized for a false start on a first-and-10 coming out of the two-minute warning in the fourth (it was actually Brown that jumped first). On the potential game-tying drive, with the ball at the 11, Shaq Mason was called for holding, pushing the offense back to the 21-yard line. We know how that drive ended.

This is the recipe for losing football games. No matter how much talent you may or may not have on the roster, playing like that is just not going to lead to many victories.

–HONORABLE FAILURE MENTIONS (in no particular order):

–Drops (Edelman, White, Gordon)
–Failed throwaway-turned-INT
–Red zone pass defense (maybe cover Antonio Brown?)
–Odd pass distribution (two targets for Gordon, one first-half target for Gronkowski)
–John Simon bailing in coverage on Jaylen Samuels on third-and-9
–John Simon being in coverage on Jaylen Samuels on third-and-9
–Play-calling on final drive

–Let’s explore that last one a bit, because for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why all three of the Patriots’ final plays were designed to go into the end zone. Facing a second-and-15 at the 21-yard line with 33 seconds left in the game wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t mean the Patriots needed every pass to go into the end zone. Getting a ball to a skill player in stride with a head of steam and green space in front of him could have at the very least led to a new set of downs and some chances from in close. Instead, Brady buzzed two passes out of the end zone before firing a fourth-down prayer that had no chance of working.

Just look at the third-down play. James White stayed in to block and then leaked out of the backfield. Had Brady thrown to White, he at least could have cut the distance to go in half before getting out of bounds. And who knows — maybe something better than that happens:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

James White didn’t use up any of his #FerociousJukes on the day; give him the ball, give him a chance to provide something. Chucking another one through the end zone accomplishes nothing.

Instead, Brady threw a pass to nobody that had zero chance of succeeding:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

That set up a fourth-and-15 from the 21, and, well, look at this play design. It’s not exactly inspiring.

For all of the offensive brainpower shared between Brady and McDaniels, and for all the talent available in White/Edelman/Gordon/Hogan/Gronkowski, that sequence was baffling.

–It’s difficult to comprehensively assess Julian Edelman’s day. He caught seven balls for 90 yards, as New England’s leading receiver. He also dropped a pass that hit his belly button, a pass that would have put the Patriots at the edge of field-goal range on a drive that ended in a punt.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

He later dropped a deep ball off his chest, albeit one where Joe Haden was all over him, thus making a catch slightly difficult.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

He also committed penalties on consecutive snaps — a false start and an illegal formation that wiped out his own 17-yard pickup.

It seems that this season, Edelman’s had one bad drop that’s seemingly woken him up and gotten his day started. Though he certainly contributed on Sunday, the mistakes did seem to pile up.

–The Patriots also fell victim to the thing we often say about their opponents: “Don’t those guys study film?” When Vance McDonald broke on an out route in the end zone, Patrick Chung dedicated wholly and fully to defending the out … which made it awfully easy for McDonald to plant his foot and cut back toward the middle of the field, leaving Chung two steps behind for an easy TD.

(GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

It was either bad preparation, or a bad reaction, or a safety being tired after a long drive and failing to execute. Whatever it was, it was too easy for Ben Roethlisberger.

–The Jonathan Jones pass interference penalty, as previously mentioned, was an abominable call made about 10 seconds late by an official who wasn’t even in position to make the call. But that’s more of a problem with NFL officiating than it is some commentary on the Patriots getting hosed. Because, frankly, bad calls happen every game, and good teams overcome bad calls.

Good teams don’t run this defense on the very next snap after a bad call:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

It’s just hard to play the “What if?” game if that’s how the Patriots defense follows up a bad call.

–On the positive end of things, the play by Jonathan Jones and Rex Burkhead to down a punt at the 1-yard line was pretty cool.

Sports guys doing sports stuff. That’s why we watch the sports games, people.

–What made the play even more impressive was that Jones recovered from a blatant block in the back penalty that went uncalled:

(GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Perhaps motivated by the PI penalty, Jones got himself up and made that play. Impressive work. (That would have been a two-inch penalty, had it been called.)

–Of course, immediately following that up by letting Stevan “Still In The League” Ridley fly through a Moses-inspired gap in the line made the effort meaningless:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Watching that back, it does appear that Maurkice Pouncey probably should have been called for holding Malcom Brown. (Shaq Mason was called for a similar hold later in the game, and Brady said referee John Hussey told him the crew was looking to call holding penalties tight.) But again, the “What if?” game is no fun when the team just doesn’t perform.

–Tom Brady’s pick was for sure bad. We know that. But can we take a moment to focus on an underappreciated athletic feat on that play?

Yes, we can. Because this is my story. And rhetorical questions like that serve no purpose other than to waste time.

Nevertheless.

Joe Haden! The man went up to high-point the ball and haul it in. OK. No big deal. Professional athlete and all of that. A simple task.

(Stephen A. Smith voice) HOWEVAH! Imagine trying to catch a ball while Rob Gronkowski goes full freight train on you and tries to drive you out of bounds, AND while the always-scrappy Julian Edelman grabs you from behind. Just imagine! Close your eyes. Do it.

Did you do it?

In your imagination, I would hope that you dropped the football. (I would hope that you also wouldn’t be lying in a heap, weeping uncontrollably after the play. But I wouldn’t fault you if you did.)

Anyway, Joe Haden didn’t drop the football and he didn’t cry. He made the catch, got two feet in bounds, and secured the ball.

Joe Haden picks off Tom Brady. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Joe Haden picks off Tom Brady. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

What a feat.

–At least we all learned that a shin being down counts the same as a knee or a butt cheek or an elbow. Learn something new every day. Though I’m still trying to figure out how Patterson didn’t structurally damage his entire lower body on that play.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Gah!

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Goo!

That was close.

And while everyone was staring intently at his shin/the side of his foot, I was just impressed by nonchalantly he popped to his feet and flipped a massive human being over his shoulder while simultaneously signaling for a first down. Looked like a sequence from a Jason Statham movie or something:

(GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

–We’d be remiss if we ignored the greatest Zero Humans Defense ever employed. I mean, when you walk into the Zero Humans Defense Hall of Fame, there’s a wall mural of this play:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Somehow, despite ignoring Chris Hogan for the entirety of an AFC Championship Game, the Steelers defense managed to outdo itself. The bar had been set high, and yet it was cleared with ease.

It was a true romp. A festival of sorts. A comical jamboree.

Alas, the Patriots played like butt the rest of the way (sorry for the technical football jargon, but that’s all I know) and wouldn’t score another touchdown, so this Zero Humans History cannot be properly celebrated or commemorated.

The Patriots should be upset at losing anyway, but adding that on top of it? They should be irate with themselves.

–Jaylen Samuels — again, a guy with essentially zero career stats entering the game — was feeling himself so fiercely vs. the Patriots that he was comfortable enough to pop a squat on New England’s bench:

That came after the Patriots offered this gully for Samuels to cruise through en route to a 17-yard gain:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

What a bad day for the New England Patriots.

–Tom Brady started the game 5-for-5 for 102 yards and a touchdown. He appeared to be on the road to a historically dominant performance. (He also appeared to be on the road to making certain handsome and brave sports writers look especially smart!) And then, a couple of drops, and the offense was never the same. He went 20-for-31 for 177 yards thereafter. How the offense can look so ready to dominate, only to go silent for the next 45 minutes, is a question that’s difficult to answer.

–I understand that the final scoreboard says that the Steelers scored just 17 points, and that is theoretically a win for the Patriots’ defense. Sure. But also, we must consider that the defense made two interceptions that would be classified more on the lucky side of the scale than the great play side. And Mike Tomlin curiously didn’t care to give his offense a chance to mount a scoring drive before halftime. Kicker Chris Boswell also missed a chip shot. So for as encouraging as the final score may have been, I’m not convinced that it’s indicative that the New England defense can repeat similar outputs in a future road playoff game.

–Speaking of road playoff games … if you like looking ahead. The Patriots could end up as the No. 3 seed in the AFC, and they could host the Colts in the wild card round. (They beat the Colts by 14 points despite literally handing them two turnovers earlier this year.) They then could advance to take on the Texans in the divisional round. Houston’s obviously very good but that’s a bit more of a pleasant idea than visiting Kansas City, no?

And if the Patriots win those games, they could end up hosting the AFC Championship Game against the Chargers, if L.A. fails to win the AFC West and thus lands a wild card spot before winning a couple of playoff games.

That would be … not the world’s most difficult playoff path.

–That being said, after Sunday, I’m not willing to look past the Bills or the Jets. Those teams suddenly aren’t quite the jokes they were earlier in the season. The Bills have won three of their last five, posting a cumulative score of 119-92 in that span. The Jets have’t been quite as successful on the final scoreboard, but they’ve been competitive the past three weeks, going 1-2 (beating the Bills) and losing each of those two games by a single possession.

So, yeah. That’s where we are. The Patriots, not long ago destined for a 12-4 record and a first-round playoff bye, have to take the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets seriously as the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s approach. That was not part of the plan.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Comments