PITTSBURGH – Had they finished the job last week in Miami, the Patriots would have entered this Pittsburgh game as the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed, by virtue of Kansas City's loss on Thursday night to the L.A. Chargers.
But they didn't. As a result, New England had to rely on those same Dolphins to lose a 1 o'clock road game at Minnesota, then beat the Steelers at Heinz Field, in order to clinch their 10th straight AFC East title.
In getting routed by the Vikings, Miami did what the Patriots needed them to do, but the Patriots couldn't hold up their end of the bargain. For the second week in a row, New England failed to convert on the game's final play.
"We played with good energy. It was a tight game, it came down to the last play. We played well, just not well enough to win," safety Duron Harmon lamented later. "Whatever it is… we've obviously got to put more into it, because for whatever reason, what we want to happen isn't happening."
"You always feel like you're going to compete to the end," remarked wide receiver Julian Edelman. "But you have to tip your hat to the Steelers. They came out here and outplayed us… but I definitely though we were going to win."
The Steelers used a methodical, 11-play drive to start the game and jump out to a quick 7-0 lead. As was the case a week earlier, New England's defense had trouble shedding Pittsburgh's early run blocks, which helped the Steelers amass more than half the yards on their 75-yard march to the end zone.
The Patriots' O didn't wasn't nearly as much time knotting up the score. On just its third play from scrimmage, New England struck back with a 63-yard touchdown connection between QB Tom Brady and WR Chris Hogan, the beneficiary of a thoroughly busted coverage by Pittsburgh's secondary. Hogan found himself uncovered on a deep crossing route, while three Steeler defensive backs were chasing WR Josh Gordon.
At Miami last week, one of the few defensive bright spots came via the pass rush, and on the Steelers' second possession, that rush got to Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger twice, forcing a punt. However, a pair of drops by normally reliable Edelman and RB James White prompted the Patriots to boot the ball right back.
Punter Ryan Allen pinned the Steelers inside their 10-yard line, but a tremendous catch by WR JuJu Smith-Schuster over rookie CB J.C. Jackson got Pittsburgh out of trouble. Then a questionable pass interference call against CB Jonathan Jones set the Steelers up within striking distance of the Patriots' end zone. Roethlisberger hit his favorite target, WR Antonio Brown, on the very next play from 17 yards out.
Just when it appeared that Pittsburgh was on its way to another long scoring drive, safety Duron Harmon thwarted it with a timely interception just outside New England's red zone. But the Patriots couldn't capitalize, stalling yet again on offense. Pittsburgh eventually went into the half with a 14-7 lead, although the margin felt even greater than that.
"Obviously, we're just not playing well enough on the road," Harmon continued. "That's what it comes down to. We've got to find ways to be better. Eventually, when we go on the road again, we'll make sure we're better."
It became clear early in this game that New England, like last week, would have trouble stopping the run. The Steelers had 84 ground yards by halftime, thanks in large part to toss counter plays with rookie Jaylen Samuels, and continued to pound the Patriots at the line of scrimmage in the third quarter. However, a missed Chris Boswell chip-shot field goal kept New England within a touchdown on the scoreboard.
The Patriots then found success running the football on the ensuing possession, but elected not to go for a 4th-and-1 deep in Steeler territory, instead settling for a 33-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski to trim Pittsburgh's lead to 14-10.
Harmon came to the rescue again when he picked off Roethlisberger a second time, early in the fourth quarter – the first time in his pro career he's had a pair of interceptions in a game.
Despite being outplayed for much of the evening, New England had the ball on the Steelers' 5-yard line deep in the fourth quarter with a chance to take its first lead. But a holding penalty, followed by a Brady interception on a wild throw, meant Pittsburgh had a chance to run the clock down and essentially end the game.
All the Steelers could manage was a Boswell field goal, and with two minutes to go in the game, the Patriots had one last crack at it. The offense got within striking distance from just outside the red zone, but a desperation 4th-down pass by Brady was knocked to the turf.
"Never had a doubt," declared rookie RB Sony Michel. "Felt prepared. We're made for moments like this, to keep fighting. That's what we did. We're playing against a great team that made some great plays. But the guys on this team still fought hard."
History was going to be a factor in this game, one way or another. Long-term history was on the Patriots' side; short-term history wasn't. New England has had considerable success against the Steelers overall. Yet, this season, the Patriots have struggled to play well on the road, and that is what ultimately caused them to drop to 9-5 and third place, as of now, in the AFC playoff race.
Only two games remain for the Patriots to find solutions to this season's struggles before the playoffs begin, and they still haven't secured themselves a spot in the postseason.
"We're in a tough spot, obviously," special teams co-captain Matthew Slater acknowledged. "We put ourselves in a tough spot, but at the same time, we haven't lost our belief in each other. We're going to figure it out, keep competing.
"This year's a little bit different, obviously. We've had some tough sledding on the road, and that's the way football is sometimes. We really can't feel sorry for ourselves. There's still a lot for us to play for, but we certainly need to figure out who we are on the road as opposed to who we are at home."
"A lot of football left," Edelman pointed out. "Whether you win or lose, you have to have a short memory, get back on the train, and have a good week of practice."
"If there's any group of guys who are going to figure it out," declared Harmon, "I know it's this group that I go to work each and every day with. We'll figure it out. It's just a tough one to swallow right now."