On the scoreboard the Patriots (10-3) lost 27-20 to the Dolphins (6-7) Monday night in Miami and actually had an onside kick attempt late to try to extend the game.
But listening to Bill Belichick talk in his usual day-after-game conference call with the New England media Tuesday afternoon the coach's tone and comments made it clear he didn't see the loss as a tough, one-score defeat.
Offensively, in particular, New England struggled both in the air and on the ground, failing to find success on a single third-down conversion (0-for-11) on the night.
"Bottom line was we didn't have a good night offensively in really any area and we were probably fortunate to have the points that we had with a couple of big plays and gained a lot of yards in a few plays," Belichick admitted. "That was probably the best thing that we did, but our overall consistency in the running game and in the passing game wasn't at a winning level. That's obvious."
As Belichick noted, third down was in issue. But so was production on early downs, including a non-existent running game. New England had a season-low 10 rushing attempts and a mere 25 yards on the ground. This coming after consecutive weeks of 190-plus yards on the ground.
"The biggest problem with the running game is the production," Belichick lamented. "I mean, nobody around here minds calling running plays if we're gaining yardage on them, but when we're not gaining yardage it makes it hard to call. Combine that with the score and our inability to convert on third down, it's kind of a spiral that you don't want to be in and we were in it last night. We couldn't run the ball, couldn't convert on third down, so don't have another set of downs to try to get it going again to make enough positive plays in the passing game to avoid third down, or in some cases to get it close enough to have a reasonable chance to convert on third down. So, some of the negative plays in the running game are like sacks. They come up with second-and-14, second-and-13. On several of those plays we had everybody blocked on paper but didn't execute the blocks so then we had a negative play. It wasn't like we had a guy that we didn't have accounted for. We accounted for him but something happened and we weren't able to get him, so we ended up with a negative play and now we're in long yardage, so it was a lot of factors that went into it."
Beyond the offensive struggles against the Dolphins, other highlights from Belichick's Tuesday conference call included the schedule for the week in regards preparing for Sunday's trip to Pittsburgh, how depth issues are limiting the defense and his thoughts on the environment the Patriots will face this weekend at Heinz Field.
1. Quick turnaround to Steelers showdown:New England will play its biggest game of the year on Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, and not just because it's the next one on the schedule. The winner of the showdown will hold the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC heading into the final two weeks of the season. As Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin pointed out a couple weeks ago, this game could decide where the next meeting will be in a potential playoff rematch.
Coming off a road game on Monday night, Belichick, his coaches and his players will have to balance trying to clean up the problems from the loss in Miami with turning the page to a short week of preparation for the talented Steelers.
"That's what we have to try and do when the players come in tomorrow. We have to spend a little bit of time on the things that we need to make sure that we correct and address or we'll see them again and they'll be a problem again and also, as you said, turn the page and move on to Pittsburgh," Belichick said. "Pittsburgh is schematically quite a bit different than Miami, so we can't dwell on the Miami game. Pittsburgh is a great team. They have their way of doing things and their schemes that they run and we'll have to start preparing for those, but there could be, as always, some carryover if you show them that you're vulnerable to a certain type of play or problem that if you don't get that fixed you'll see again the following week. We'll have to move quickly on that Wednesday. If it's a situational play, that could come later in the week when we go over those specific situations. We'll have to try and balance that this week; particularly tomorrow."
2. "You're not going to be able to do as much" with injuries at linebacker:With Dont'a Hightower on IR and Kyle Van Noy missing his first game of the season in Miami due to a calf injury, New England was pretty undermanned at linebacker against the Dolphins. A group of guys who weren't even with the team at various points this season – Marquis Flowers, Trevor Reilly, Eric Lee and Jonathan Freeny – saw action at the position. The group certainly had its issues both in the run game and passing defense, which might be understandable.
But beyond just the results of the performance, Belichick admitted that the guys defensive coordinator Matt Patricia has to work with right now at linebacker could be limiting the options the unit has, or at least had against the Dolphins.
"Well, you can do whatever you want to do. You just have to decide how much you feel like you can do, how well you can execute it," Belichick said. "I mean, sure, to some degree it changes it when you take guys that haven't done something. You're not going to be able to do as much with them as guys that have done a lot of things against different teams, different situations, different looks. But it is what it is. The players that are out there are working hard. We're going to keep working hard with them and try to improve and correct the things that we need to do that on."
3. Heinz Field will be "loud…intense":The Patriots have been the best road team in football over the last couple years. Monday night's loss in Miami snapped a six-game road winning streak to open the season and a 14-game road winning streak over the last two years that was the second longest in NFL history. Sunday's trip to Pittsburgh, New England's third straight road game, has the Patriots visiting a place where they've had solid success over the years even against good Steelers squads.
Still, Belichick clearly respects the tough surroundings his players must prepare for heading into the key contest against the longtime AFC rival.
"It's a great environment. It's a great football area – western Pennsylvania," Belichick said. "Pittsburgh has had a lot of great players and great coaches, high school football, college football, pro football, championships in that area, both collegiately and professionally. It's great history and great tradition there. The fans are very passionate about football and that's reflected at the stadium. They give their team great support. It'll be loud. It'll be intense, like it is in a lot of stadiums that we go into. But they do a real good job there."