Patriots’ reign on the AFC in doubt after Week 15 loss to the Steelers

By: Denny Hackett

After dominating the matchup against Pittsburgh for the last decade, the Patriots did not show up against the Steelers on Sunday and fell to 9-5 on the season.

Going into Sunday’s contest, the Patriots had won five straight games against the Steelers. In each of the past eight games he has played against the Patriots, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has thrown an interception. Over that span, Brady threw just one interception against the Steelers.

On Sunday, the Patriots offense was uncharacteristically bad. Standout players like Josh Gordon and Rob Gronkowski were non-factors throughout most of the game.

Gronk didn’t get his first catch until the fourth quarter, Gordon had three drops on the day, and the running game couldn’t even muster 100 yards on the ground.  Then on a fourth quarter drive with the game on the line, Brady threw a pass off of his back foot that was easily intercepted by Steelers’ cornerback Joe Haden. With this interception, Brady snapped a streak of zero red zone interceptions, going all the way back to a matchup with the Baltimore Ravens in December of 2016.

But then inexplicably the Steelers opted to go to a more zone coverage based scheme on the last drive of regulation for the Patriots, something that Brady has thrived against when he’s played against the Steelers. And the Patriots moved right down the field and before Brady made some uncharacteristically bad throws, including two passes into the end zone that sailed over everyone before finally making a pass targeted directly at Edelman before it was swatted away, washing away any hopes of tying the game.

Throughout the game on Sunday, the Patriots’ defense played incredibly bad, especially when it came to stopping Pittsburgh’s rushing attack, despite the fact that they were missing James Conner who has run the ball well all season long for the Steelers.

Instead of Conner, the ball carrying duties went to rookie Jaylen Samuels and former Patriots’ castoff Stevan Ridley. Ridley, who spent his first four seasons with the Patriots has bounced around the league since tearing his ACL back in 2014, saw limited action but took his first carry of the game for 12 yards.

Samuels carried much of the load for the Steelers on the ground, and surpassed his season total of 59 yards in the first half, when he ran for 70 yards on just nine carries. Samuels ended the day with the first 100 plus yard rushing performance of his career and finished with 143 yards on 19 carries.

One of the only bright spots for the Patriots’ defense was safety Duron Harmon. On the day he finished with two interceptions, bringing his career total against the Steelers up to five. One of which was a gift from Roethlisberger where all Harmon really had to do was catch the ball because the throw was so far off the mark.

The second interception came after Stephon Gilmore stripped the ball away from Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown and Harmon was there to take it away. Despite Harmon grabbing the two interceptions and Gilmore having a decent game against Brown, the rest of the Patriots secondary was terrible on Sunday.

Jason McCourty in particular had a terrible game, especially on a third quarter drive that resulted in a missed field goal for Steelers’ kicker Chris Boswell. During the drive, McCourty was beat on back to back plays by wide receiver James Washington. On the first play, Washington jumped up and wrestled the ball away from McCourty for a 32 yard gain. Then on the next play, Washington stiff armed McCourty after catching the ball, resulting in a 24 yard gain.

Unlike past weeks where the Patriots’ defense gets better as the game progress, the Steelers broke the defense on their final drive of the game. Again, Samuels stood out with a catch for a first down on a third down, that had he not caught would have resulted in Brady getting the ball back. Then on the next play Samuels took the ball 15 yards for a first down, with a Patriots holding call tacked onto the end of it.

With the loss on Sunday, the Patriots are guaranteed to finish with the worst mark since 2009. They also are in serious jeopardy of not getting a first round bye for the first time since that same year when they lost to the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card Round.

This is not the same Patriots’ team of old, Tom Brady’s decision making has been all over the place, especially in the last several games. And with their defense playing as bad as it is, they have little chance of stopping the high-powered offenses of the Kansas City Chiefs or Houston Texans, who they would have to play on the road based in the playoff picture as it stands today.

This Patriots team is deeply flawed and is running out of time to right the ship and save their season. They have to win their final two games against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets to even have a chance to do so.

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