Pittsburgh, Pa. - It's tough enough in the National Football League to defeat a good team on their own home field. That task becomes nearly impossible if you commit four turnovers.
The Patriots learned that lesson the hard way in Sunday's 34-20 shellacking at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady fumbled and uncharacteristically threw two interceptions - one of which was returned for a touchdown - and Kevin Faulk also coughed up the ball on another occasion as the Pats committed a season-high four turnovers. Pittsburgh made good of the New England mistakes, scoring 24 points off turnovers in the game, including 14 in the first quarter alone. The turnovers turned what might have been a closely contested game between teams with a combined 11-1 record into simply a breather.
"If you go out there and turn the ball over, it's hard to beat good football teams and it's hard to beat bad football teams when you do that," wide receiver Troy Brown said. "Those guys took advantage of everything we did and every mistake we made. That's what we talked about not doing. We came in here and we did everything we didn't want to do, and they took advantage of it."
Trailing 7-3 near the end of the first quarter, things began to unravel for the Patriots.
]()On their third drive of the game, starting from their own 29-yard line, Brady was sacked and stripped by Pittsburgh linebacker Joey Porter. Forced to step up in the pocket because of pressure, Brady brought the ball back to throw but lost grip as he looked down field when Porter hit the ball from behind. The turnover gave the Steelers ideal field position, and they took advantage when Ben Roethlisberger finished a five-play drive with a 4-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress.
The Patriots barely had time to recover. On first-and-10 on the ensuing possession, Brady was intercepted by Pittsburgh cornerback Deshea Townsend, who took the ball 39 yards the opposite way for a touchdown. Brady, who was looking for Bethel Johnson on a curl route on the play, said Townsend simply jumped the route when Johnson slipped on the turf.
"He made a good play," Brady said. "I threw it, and the next thing I know he's turning and going with it the other way."
In just more than three minutes of game clock, the vibe of the game completely changed.
"We gave up 21 points in the first quarter," head coach Bill Belichick said. "They all hurt. Seven hurt, 14 hurt, 21 hurt. They all hurt. The game wasn't in good shape at the end of the first quarter. When you turn the ball over and you can't stop the ball on top of that, they're all bad."
The disastrous stretch of the first quarter not only stuck the Patriots with an 18-point deficit but also effectively took them out of their game plan.
"We got behind to a very good football team," Brady said. "We made it tough on ourselves to be down by 18 points at the end of the first quarter. We dug ourselves a big ditch and couldn't find a way out of it. It was just too much to overcome."
It wouldn't be the end of the miscues though, because for the third time in the game the Patriots turned the ball over on their first play of a drive when they opened the second half with the ball.
]()On first-and-10 from their own 24-yard line, Brady took the ball out of the shotgun and found Faulk on the left side. Faulk, trying desperately to make something happen, fought for positive yardage before he was stripped from behind by Porter. Pittsburgh's Aaron Smith recovered and returned the ball five yards to the 17-yard line.
The Steelers took the gift and scored four plays later when Jerome Bettis bulled his way up the middle for a 2-yard touchdown.
"We came out, and I dumped the ball to Kevin [Faulk] and he's trying to make some guys miss and [Porter] got his hand on the ball," Brady said. "They went down and scored. It makes it tough."
On this night, all of the mistakes the Patriots had avoided letting affect the outcome of games ultimately came back to be the difference. It was clear both the dominance and the luck the Patriots displayed during their 21 consecutive wins were missing. Tagged with an 18-point deficit with three quarters left to play, the Patriots outscored the Steelers 17-13 the rest of the way despite playing with no resemblance of a running game.
On the road against a quality opponent, it was simply too much to overcome. Even for the Patriots.
"It's tough to overcome when the other team is not making mistakes and you're making mistakes," Brady said. "That's really what this game came down to."