New England, we have a problem.
The 2018 Patriots may yet have great things lie ahead of them, but one thing has become exhaustingly certain – they cannot, or will not, follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.
This team is not last years' team, or the year before, or the year before that. Even though our expectations are as high as they've ever been, because success is all we (and they) ultimately know, this Patriots' team is a victim of that success.
We expect more. The Patriots themselves undoubtedly expect more. But the problems persist. And the biggest issue is – many of the problems appear to be correctible mistakes. Penalties. Red Zone failures. Stopping the run. Mere tweaks and twists, with a little extra attention paid to the nitty-gritty details, right?
At 3-5 away from Gillette this season, these Patriots fall into a category they aren't terribly familiar with. To start, the Patriots haven't lost back-to-back December games in 16 years. The 2000 and 2009 teams also had losing records away from home, with the 2000 team (Bill Belichicks' first season, pre-TB12) finishing 5-11 overall, 2-6 away. The 2009 team reached the postseason at 10-6 (2-6 on the road) but lost in the Wild Card round of the postseason, at home, to Baltimore.
New England will finish this regular season with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since '09, which is also the last time the Patriots played in the Wild Card round. These numbers are, unquestionably, amazing.
And perhaps part of the current problem.
You already know this, but it bears repeating – a Belichick team hasn't won a Super Bowl with a losing road record. The Patriots haven't even played in a Super Bowl with anything south of 4-4 away from home, and that was back in 1985. They also haven't reached a Super Bowl without a bye, under Belichick.
Just two seasons ago, the Patriots ran roughshod through their road schedule with a perfect 8-0 mark. So what gives this year?
Different team. Different time. And from this perspective, a different mindset.
We believe this team wants to win. They're professionals. As ex-Jets coach Herm Edwards once famously intoned, "Hello? You play to win the game!" But what I don't see – and what many others can't see, including some on the sideline – is the hunger, the drive, the d-e-s-p-e-r-a-t-i-o-n to be better than the other guys.
Pittsburgh was hungrier. They played with more desperation, probably because they had more to lose with a loss on Sunday. The Patriots have a cushion within the AFC East, although that cushion has thinned-out over the past two weeks. Defensively, the Steelers played with fire and passion; coming off a three-game losing streak themselves, they just couldn't lose again.
And the Patriots?
They played hard but couldn't respond. And made countless mistakes along the way. Their backs haven't been "to the wall," while the Steelers played with the kind of energy and effort needed to extend their season. Sounds like this could simply be uncharted territory for a ship that is used to sailing in calmer seas.
Brady himself said Monday it isn't anything he hasn't seen. But what about some of his teammates? "I certainly don't feel we can't win on the road," he told WEEI Monday morning. "We had our chances (Sunday). We certainly had our chances against Miami.
"I'm not worried about playing on the road. We just have to win," Brady added. "We have to win at home, we have to beat Buffalo. That is where we have to get back to work, getting on the practice field and just go up there, win the game and try to win the division. That is our first goal."
Yes, yes it is. Win the division first. The trouble with that one, however, is the division could have (should have?) already been won. Those expectations keep getting in the way.
Yes New England, we have a problem. And part of the problem, is us.
Not for nuthin', but the Steelers won the toss, took the ball and rammed it down the Patriots' throats. Anyone else notice that? Just sayin.'
You want problems? You want to complain? Express your feelings and sentiments? Pick something. You won't miss the target.
But let's start with the obvious. And it isn't the first time we've talked about these. 14 penalties for 106 yards in walk-offs is an egregious, completely correctable part of play Sunday that the Patriots simply could not fix.
Maybe it was the noise at Heinz Field? It shouldn't have been. New England practices with loud music blaring at practice all the time. They know stadiums get loud. Sunday wasn't the first noisy rodeo for those guys.
So why all the laundry? You're not wrong if you thought the officiating crew was calling it tighter than usual – which Brady himself said the referees told him they're trying to call tighter. But this also goes both ways. The officials don't just pick on the Pats, despite your thoughts to the contrary.
When one player is flagged for a penalty, others need to notice. Others need to make certain it doesn't happen to them. This lack of individual accountability, followed by a lack of adjustment, is alarming.
Out of the season-high 14 penalties, nine moved the offense back. Five false starts, three for offensive holding and an illegal formation. That's shooting yourself in the foot, for sure.
14 penalties accepted in a game are the 2nd most in the Belichick-era, after 15 penalties were committed against Minnesota in 2014. Correcting these mistakes, many of them drive-killers or drive-extenders, won't fix every problem. But it would sure fix a lot of them.
Not in a rush
No LeVeon Bell. No James Conner. No problem.
The Steelers inserted Jaylen Samuels into the running back slot and got help from ex-Patriot Stevan Ridley. 25 carries, 158 yards rushing, averaging 6.3 per attempt. Combined with the NINE yards per carry allowed last week in Miami, if this isn't a red flag for the defense…what else could be?
Some of it is game plan, but much of it is also a lack of execution within the front seven. The Patriots also went heavily with extra defensive backs against the Steelers' receivers, leaving the tackle box a veritable wonderland for a running back.
The loss to the Steelers wasn't really on the defense, however. Holding a Ben Roethlisberger-led team to 17 points should get you a "W." But the trend in defending the run should give the Bills and Jets, the next two opponents, reason to believe they can move the ball on the ground, too.
An offensive "O"
In the five road losses, New England has managed a mere 16.6 points per game. They've scored exactly 10 points in three of those five, including Sunday.
The last time a case of anemia this bad set in? 2009. There's that year again. And even then, the Patriots averaged just over 22 points per game on the road.
In Pittsburgh, the Patriots managed to convert on only three of ten 3rd down opportunities. The ground game was held to less than 100 yards rushing. There were three drops by receivers, at least. And for the first time since the last week of the 2015 season, the offense was forced to punt five straight times during a game.
Not exactly an offensive juggernaut, was it?
Nine pre-snap penalties (out of the 14) directly hurt the cause, no doubt. Other than the 63-yard touchdown to Chris Hogan, an inability to find Rob Gronkowski, Josh Gordon and James White open was a problem. In the Red Zone, the offense put up a clunker in an oh-for-three result, continuing a recent trend of inability inside the 20-yard line.
Two RZ drives in the 4th quarter alone resulted in no points on the scoreboard. Zero.
Brady was also not without fault, as a collapsing pocket forced a throw away in the 4th quarter that wasn't really thrown away. Joe Haden picked it off, and the ensuing Steeler drive led to three precious points for Pittsburgh up on the board.
Pittsburgh deserves a lot of credit for their defensive performance. But the offense shouldn't be this offensive in Week 15 of a season, either.
Win the division. Beat Buffalo Sunday at Gillette, or "back in" with a Miami loss to Jacksonville, and the AFC East still belongs to the Patriots for what would be a record-setting 10th straight season.
'18 ain't over yet.
As far as seedings and byes and wild cards go, too much can still happen over the final two weeks of the regular season. The Patriots, uncharacteristically, need help in accomplishing some of this. But as grim as things may appear, the picture gains focus with a Dolphins' loss, or a Houston loss at Philadelphia Sunday, too.
If the right events occur, New England could find themselves right back in play for a first-round bye – which is always a goal for a contending team each year. It's just that this year, the Patriots are going about it a bit differently.
Kansas City has led the charge for the top record in the AFC all season. And yet, if the Chiefs lose at Seattle, they could tumble from 1st to 5th (!) in the playoff standings. The Chargers, with a win against Baltimore, could assume the top spot after lying in wait for an opportunity much of the year.
It's just what the NFL hopes for. Taking it all down to the final snap. Let the season play out, before signing off on any conclusions.
Is it just me though, or does the parity around here sometimes play more like P-A-R-O-D-Y?
John Rooke, an author and award-winning broadcaster, is in his 26thseason as the Patriots' stadium voice. Currently serving in several media capacities - which include hosting "Patriots Playbook" on Patriots.com Radio - Rooke has broadcast college football and basketball locally and nationally for more than 30 years and is a member of the Rhode Island Radio Hall of Fame and RI's Words Unlimited Hall of Fame.