Twenty-one it is. The NFL's longest winning streak ended today with a 34-20 New England loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It was pretty clear tonight that the Steelers were the better team," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in his post-game news conference. "They out-coached us, they out-played us and they did a lot of things right. They certainly deserved to win. They won convincingly. We weren't very good in any phase of the game and didn't do much of anything right. Anytime you give up 34 points, especially on the road, it will be hard to win."
Four turnovers were key to the loss but also factoring in was the absence of Corey Dillon to the starting line-up and an early injury to Ty Law that severely hurt New England's pass defense against the upstart rookie quarterback of the Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger.
Pittsburgh did all the scoring it would need in the first quarter with 21 points and from there did most of its work on the ground behind Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis who together finished with well over 200 yards.
With Dillon out and behind by a wide margin, the Patriots offense gained only 5 yards on the ground while Tom Brady had 271 yards on 25 of 43 passing with two TDs and two interceptions. David Givens had another strong performance with 8 catches, 101 yards and two TDs.
"It's tough to find a silver lining," Brady said. "We didn't play well. And when you don't play well, you lose."
After holding Pittsburgh to three and out to begin the game, Brady engineered a 7-play drive that ended with a Vinatieri 43-yard field goal. The big play on the drive was a 15-yard facemask call on Troy Polamalu that turned an 11-yard pass to Patten into a 26-yard pick-up.
Pittsburgh got things rolling on its third possession of the game, still in the first quarter. After Roethlisberger converted a third and six with a 14-yard pass to Verron Haynes, he was good on a 21-yard completion to Hines Ward just as he was hit by Ted Johnson.
That play was a precursor to the scoring play, a 47-yard bomb to Plaxico Burress, again thrown just as the rookie quarterback's pocket collapsed around him.
Law left the game on that series with an injured foot.
"He's one of the best defensive players on this team, and to lose him, you lose a crucial and critical part of your team," Rodney Harrison said. "What do you do? You just have to play through. You have to continue to fight, we all had to step our games even more and try to make something happen."
With the crowd now fully into the game, Pittsburgh's defense responded with Joey Porter sacking Brady on New England's next play. The ball popped loose before Brady's arm came forward and the Steelers recovered.
Four straight Duce Staley runs had Pittsburgh on the Patriots 4-yard line. From there, it was Roethlisberger floating a pass to Burress who dove and managed to get a knee in bounds on the right side of the end zone. New England challenged the play but the call stood.
The Patriots now found themselves in unfamiliar territory, down 14-3. With Brady's offensive weapons severely hurt due to the absence of Dillon, this would be the offense's biggest challenge of the season thus far.
A challenge would become a deep, deep hole as Brady went back to work and threw a ball to the left sideline intended for Bethel Johnson. Deshea Townsend stepped in front of the pass and had clear sailing into the end zone from 34 yards out.
At the end of the first quarter New England was down 21-3 with the two turnovers key factors to its deficit.
"We had too many bad plays early in the game," Brady said. "We just couldn't overcome them."
The Patriots desperation was showing as Brady attempted two back-to-back long passes on his team's next offensive try. The first was overthrown to Givens; the second was intended for Johnson but intercepted by Ike Taylor for Brady's second pick of the day.
Pittsburgh converted that third New England turnover again into points, a 19-yard field goal by Jeff Reed. With Law out of the game, the Patriots defense was having a difficult time stopping the Steeler receivers. Between Roethlisberger's passing and the pounding of Staley (17 carries for 70 yards in the first half), New England was on its heels.
New England ended the first half in two-minute mode. Brady hit Faulk over the middle for 13 yards and then Givens for 14 after a nice kickoff return by Johnson started the drive at the New England 44.
Another completion to Givens took the ball down to the 19. Brady then looked to Faulk over the middle and this time he broke a tackle and picked up 17 yards to the Pittsburgh 2-yard line with plenty of time -- 51 seconds -- left in the half.
Two plays later Brady ran play action and found Givens alone in the back of the end zone.
That left 42 seconds in the half and when Randle El returned the kick 37 yards to the 38, the Steelers had time to make back some points.
Roethlisberger had his team down to the Patriots 31 with nine seconds left but a holding call on Jeff Hartings of the Steelers knocked his team out of field goal range. With three seconds left, Roethlisberger threw to the end zone incomplete and the teams went to the locker room at 24-10.
With the Patriots to receive the second half kickoff there was hope that somehow New England could climb out of the hole they were in.
That hope was quickly squashed when Faulk fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and Pittsburgh took over on the New England 17. Four plays later Jerome Bettis barrelled in for the touchdown to regain his team's three touchdown lead at 31-10.
Undaunted, Brady reacquainted himself with Troy Brown on the next series, playing for the first time since the Buffalo game. Brady connected with No. 80 three times for 10, 18 and 6. On second and four from the Steeler 14, Brady threw a quick pass to Patten. The pass was low and Patten scooped it up, seemingly before the ball touched the ground. On the subsequent run, Patten had his helmet ripped off. The Steelers challenged the catch and won but the facemask call that came on the run stood.
The result was first and goal on the 7 for the Patriots.
Three straight imcompletes followed as New England's running game was simply not an option. The Patriots had to settle for a 25-yard field goal to make the score 31-13.
Pittsburgh then put together a brutal drive right through the teeth of the Patriots defense. Aside from an 11-yard pass to Ward early in the series and an imcomplete that forced a 29-yard field goal, the Steelers ran Staley on five straight plays, six in all, and then Bettis on five more. Staley passed the century mark for rushing on the drive and Pittsburgh was up 34-13.
"At the end of the game they kind of ran the clock out on us," Richard Seymour said. "That's definately disappointing defensively to kind of get the ball run down your throats like that at the end of the game. We really didn't do anything we wanted to do. You just have to make tackles, that's the bottom line."
With 6:33 left to play, Givens made a beautiful catch in the end zone from 23 yards out to pull New England within two touchdowns. The gutsy drive was almost exclusively through the air as Brady looked to Givens, Brown and Patten. He was also doing it behind a patchwork offensive line as Matt Light was out of the game with an undisclosed injury. Brandon Gorin was playing left tackle while Stephen Neal moved over to the right side. Gorin started the game at right tackle for an injured Tom Ashworth, unable to play with a back injury.
Pittsburgh's aim was to run out the clock, literally, and it went about it with Bettis between the tackles. That set up a play action for Roethlisberger and he hit fullback Dan Kreider for 13 yards on third and three from midfield. That first down alone pretty much put an end to any miraculous comeback hopes for New England but when Bettis broke loose for 29 yards two plays later, the game was Pittsburgh's as all Roethlisberger had to do was kneel down.
"It hurts," Harrison said. "It hurts. It's just the way we lost. Maybe they just flat-out beat us, but I think we contributed to that with the mistakes that we had. It's disappointing the way we lost. Anytime you lose, you lose, but you sit back and wonder how you lost that ballgame. It was just diappointing. We couldn't get off the field, we couldn't stop them running the ball."
Patriots.com reporter Frank Tadych contributed to this report.