The Patriots were 11 yards away from a potentially game-tying touchdown in the closing seconds, but a holding penalty coupled with some questionable decisions from Tom Brady combined to deliver a tough 17-10 defeat at the hands of the hated Pittsburgh Steelers.
Now sitting at 9-5, the Patriots will close out the season with home games and against the Bills and Jets and are still in search of the AFC East title.
Here are some observations from the Patriots Week 15 loss at Heinz Field.
-Everything about the 2018 season has just seemed off for the Patriots and that continued in Pittsburgh on Sunday. New England fell to 3-5 on the road this season and finished it off with a loss in a place that has traditionally been a home away from home. The Steelers consistently find ways to self-destruct when playing the Patriots and even though Ben Roethlisberger & Co. tried hard at times to do it again, New England still couldn’t take advantage. Roethlisberger tossed a pair of interceptions and kicker Chris Boswell missed a 32-yard field goal, yet the Patriots still found a way to lose.
-As a result of the bitterly disappointing loss, the Patriots find themselves on the outside looking in for a first-round bye. They entered the day a half-game behind Houston, who defeated the Jets Saturday night to move to 10-4 on the season. New England holds the tiebreaker over the Texans so a win in Pittsburgh would have vaulted the Patriots back to the No. 2 spot, but the loss drops them to the third spot with two weeks left. The Texans close with games at Philadelphia and at home against Jacksonville. Two wins would give Houston a bye and the Patriots would then need two losses from both Los Angeles and Kansas City in order to avoid playing on wild card weekend.
-Despite all the problems the Patriots offense suffered through – 14 penalties, 3-for-10 on third downs – there was still a chance to pull off the win. Trailing 17-10 with more than two minutes left, Brady drove New England to the Steelers 11 yard-line. A holding penalty on Shaq Mason, the 14th of the evening against the Patriots, moved the ball back to the 21 to make it second-and-15. At that point Brady tried to force three straight passes across the middle into the end zone and never came close to connecting. He tried to hit Rob Gronkowski on the first two but the tight end wasn’t open, and on fourth down he looked for Julian Edelman. The Steelers had strong coverage on all three plays and in retrospect didn’t come close to connecting. Brady seemed to turn away from his throws as the Steelers pass rush bothered him on the final three snaps.
-Interestingly, the Patriots were without Josh Gordon on the final play. Gordon did not enjoy a strong game, finishing with only one catch for 19 yards and also had a bad drop on a key third down that led to a punt. But it was strange not to see him on the field for the final play as the Patriots were desperately trying to tie the score. Instead it was Cordarrelle Patterson on the left side as Edelman went down the seam. Gordon’s size would seem to be beneficial in such a situation but the coaches felt otherwise.
-The Patriots may not have needed a miracle touchdown in the final seconds had it not been for a horrific red zone pick tossed by Brady on the previous possession. Brady was under duress and appeared to try to throw the ball away near the sideline around the 5 but Joe Haden came up with the interception on Brady’s jump ball. It was the second straight week Brady made an uncharacteristically terrible decision in the red zone after losing track of his timeouts and the clock in the closing seconds of the first half in Miami during the Patriots Week 14 loss.
-Bill Belichick faced an interesting decision late in the first half and chose to play it safe. After Cordarrelle Patterson made a terrific effort to pick up 9 yards and a first down, replay overturned the call and ruled him short of the line to gain to set up fourth-and-inches from the Patriots 41. Belichick kept the offense on the field with 1:07 left and the clock running, opting not to have a measurement that would have stopped the clock. Instead, he raced the punt team onto the field as the Steelers were forced to allow the clock to run down to 32 seconds before Ryan Allen’s 46-yard punt was downed at the Pittsburgh 14 with just 21 ticks left. Switching from offense to punting made it tough for Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to call a timeout, and Ben Roethlisberger then took a knee to close out the half with Pittsburgh leading 14-7.
-Allen was also involved in another memorable play in the opening 30 minutes when his kick bounced inside the Steelers 10 as returner Ryan Switzer hoped for a touchback. The ball bounced toward the end zone when Jonathan Jones flew through the air in an attempt to keep it out, but he still needed Rex Burkhead to miraculously keep the ball out when he leaped just before the goal line to deflect the ball back again. Ramon Humber was able to down the ball at the Pittsburgh 1 to effectively tip the field.
-Jones was flagged for a questionable pass interference penalty in the second quarter during a Steelers touchdown drive. Jones was covering Eli Rogers on a deep ball when he drew the flag for some incidental hand-fighting, giving Pittsburgh 26 yards and a first down at the Patriots 17. Roethlisberger then found Antonio Brown for a touchdown on the next play, beating Jason McCourty down the left seam to put the Steelers on top.
-The run defense continues to be a problem, even with Pittsburgh missing its lead back, James Conner. Conner sat out with an ankle injury and was replaced by Jaylen Samuels, a rookie out of North Carolina State who was more of a tight end/H-back type in college. Samuels riddled the Patriots front to the tune of 94 yards on 11 carries through the first three quarters despite the fact that the Steelers seemed reluctant to use him consistently. Stevan Ridley also ripped off a 12-yard run that allowed Pittsburgh to escape their goal line in the second quarter. But what may have been even worse was the job that Samuels did in the final quarter when the Steelers were trying to run out the clock. Samuels finished with 19 carries for 142 yards, 48 of which came with the game on the line down the stretch. Pittsburgh was able to melt 5:13 off the clock and added a Boswell field goal to create the final score. The run defense is a major problem as Pittsburgh gained 161 yards on 23 carries (not including Roethlisberger kneel downs).
-Pittsburgh was also victimized by a key pass interference call later in the game when Joe Haden was flagged for hooking Chris Hogan on a third-and-16 play deep in Patriots territory. Brady looked down the middle for Hogan and Haden had solid coverage but still opted to pull on the receiver’s hip as the ball arrived, giving the Patriots 21 yards to midfield and a first down. That drive ended in Stephen Gostkowski’s 33-yard field goal that cut the lead to 14-10.
-The Patriots had a couple of changes to their lineup in Pittsburgh as Jacob Hollister and Obi Melifonwu were inactive while Dwayne Allen and Keion Crossen took their place. Allen missed the last three games after suffering a knee injury in a Week 10 loss in Tennessee and took Hollister’s place as the backup tight end. Melifonwu dressed but didn’t play last week in Miami and Crossen took his spot. Danny Shelton, Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Duke Dawson and James Ferentz rounded out the inactive list.
-It wasn’t all bad for the Patriots defense as the secondary turned in a solid effort against a very talented group of Steelers receivers. Stephon Gilmore had the tough task to tracking Antonio Brown for most of the evening and Brown finished with just four catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, the latter of which did not come with Gilmore in coverage. He did a great job of playing Brown physically near the line of scrimmage and limited one of the most dangerous wideouts in the game.
-Not to be outdone, rookie J.C. Jackson impressed with his work against JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had only four catches for 40 yards. Jackson matched Smith-Schuster on a pair of deep balls early in the game, and then came up huge with the game on the line. The Steelers needed one more first down to close things out with just over two minutes remaining when Roethlisberger looked deep for Smith-Schuster. Jackson had tight coverage but Smith-Schuster appeared to make a leaping catch near the goal line, but Jackson was able to fight through to the ground and the ball came loose. That incompletion led to a Boswell field goal and gave the Patriots one final chance to tie.