After ruling the NFL for the better part of two decades with discipline, execution, and clutch plays, the New England Patriots failed in all aspects against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Their Week 16 loss showed unusual foundation cracks that could cost them dearly in the playoffs.
Entering their Week 16 showdown with a struggling Pittsburgh Steelers team, the New England Patriots were in a position to challenge for a top-two seed in the AFC. The Patriots have dominated this matchup for years for many reasons. But their advantages swung the other way and proved to be weaknesses as the Patriots played poorly in defeat.
The 17-10 loss may have come down to the final play as the Patriots threatened to push the game into overtime, but Bill Belichick’s team never felt closely matched. The Patriots repeatedly made uncharacteristic mental mistakes, physical mistakes, and cost themselves opportunities to take control of the game.
It was the second-consecutive week where this happened. The Miami Miracle in Week 15 was set up by a sack taken in the red zone by Tom Brady, a shocking mental breakdown for the 41-year old quarterback. He repeated that same level of mistake this week on his mystifying heave that led to a Joe Haden interception. The Steelers had entered the game with only five interceptions all season long.
According to NFL Research, this was the first time the Patriots lost consecutive games in December since 2002. While it’s not a massive concern in itself, it’s what’s causing the Patriots to lose these tight games that’s uncharacteristic of the foundation Belichick has long perfected.
The Patriots are rarely the more penalized team. They rarely lose in the trenches and do extremely well to protect Tom Brady. Their defense can quickly adjust to slow individuals who are causing them angst.
None of that was the case against the Steelers.
New England was penalized a whopping 14 times for 106 yards, a massive rise for the team with the second-least penalties in the league entering the game. They had averaged just 5.4 penalties prior to this contest. Eight of the 14 were pre-snap, which is also unusual for this detail-precise staff and roster.
Their inability to consistently protect Brady and free-up tight end Rob Gronkowski proved costly as well. The right side of the Patriots’ line had trouble containing T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt, and Brady reacted poorly as soon as he saw an incoming rusher. For once, Brady looked his age.
The issues continued on offense, too. Brady rarely prioritized Josh Gordon after a costly third-down drop, including a brutal end-of-game sequence where he threw into heavy traffic for Gronkowski and Julian Edelman instead of giving Gordon a chance in the end zone. It was almost shocking considering how well Gordon has played for the Patriots as their main offensive weapon since acquiring him.
In total, the Patriots accumulated four drops, three of which would’ve converted first downs on separate drives. It’s a level of incompetence normally saved for mediocre and bad teams, and rarely ever seen by the Patriots.
Their inability to adjust throughout the game was as notable as some of the more flukey occurrences like drops and penalties. Those two things can change quickly. The most prevalent offensive issues was being unable to free Gronkowski shouldn’t have been the demise of the offense considering how bad the Steelers’ cornerbacks are.
The defense was also hurting itself when it came to defending Jaylen Samuels. Samuels was completely ineffective in recent weeks due to his lack of speed and raw ability as a pure running back. Yet he accumulated 142 yards on the ground and converted 30 more, including a huge first-down late in the fourth quarter, as a receiver.
Pittsburgh owned the trenches and made the Patriots look slow in their front seven. While that’s been the case since the Patriots traded Jamie Collins two years ago, they had done a better job masking their limitations with blitzes and post-snap rotations that confused quarterbacks. The defense did well to force two interceptions, but it’s not as if there was significant pushback when they needed it most.
The remaining season may lead to the Patriots finishing in the third seed and without a first-week bye. They’d still be the favorite against anyone they play, but the Ravens in particular have given the Patriots troubles in the past. Beyond that, the Patriots don’t have the same upside as they once did.
For now, this two-game skid looks like an indictment of Brady’s age, and a defense that lacks the multiple stars that it’s relied on in past seasons. Same could have been said about last year’s version of the Patriots, though, so it would be dangerous to completely write them off despite their foundational cracks.