Pittsburgh -- This was the Pats Steelers game we expected: close, competitive and physical. It was old-fashioned football. For those who like high-scoring shootouts like the matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams earlier this season where the final score was 54-51, this was not the game for you. For those who like defense and running, this was a game you might have been waiting for all season. Unfortunately, for the Pats the Steelers were the more physical team and the Pats could not stop the Steelers running attack as the Steelers defeated the Pats 17-10. It was only the third time that Tom Brady has lost to the Steelers. It didn't help either that the Pats committed 14 penalties for 106 yards.
Tom Brady made one last valiant effort to do what he has done so many times in his career. The Pats trailed 17-10 with 2:30 to play and Brady drove the team to the 15. Unfortunately, his final pass to Julian Edelman fell incomplete and the Pats fell to 9-5. The Pats could have clinched their division the last two weeks with a win and each time they failed to do so. The Pats will likely clinch the AFC East next week when they face Buffalo at Gillette Stadium. But the Pats fell to the No. 3 seed - meaning they will need help from the Houston Texans in order to earn a first-round bye.
The inability to stop the Steelers running attack was frustrating because the Steelers starting running back James Connor did not play. Their backup Jaylen Samuels looked like Gayle Sayers Sunday afternoon with 19 rushes for 142 yards. The Steelers kept giving it to Samuels because they knew the Pats run defense is struggling. They surely watched the tape of the Pats run defense last week against Miami in which Frank Gore, 35, ran for almost 100 yards. The tired cliche of the NFL being a copycat league proved true on Sunday. There are no secrets to having a better run defense. It is simply about will, power and strength.
"We just need to be more physical and play better technique," Trey Flowers said.
Sometimes coaches outthink themselves. The Steelers, for the most, did not on Sunday as they were unafraid to keep running the ball even with two great receivers in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.. The Pats defense, forgetting what the numbers at pro football focus said, could not make the critical stops. After the Steelers intercepted Brady when they led 14-10, the Steelers had the ball at their own four yard line. The Steelers went on a five minute drive in which the Steelers picked up two first downs on the ground. Ben Roethlisberger also threw for a first down to Samuels and another to Vance McDonald. The completion to Samuels was the most heartbreaking (from a Pats perspective) because he was covered and the defender left his man to try and sack Roethlisberger. On the next play, Samuels ran for another first down for 15 yards.
The Pats defense improved during the course of the game. The Pats defense looked terrible on the Steelers opening possession. The Steelers opening drive was 11 plays, 75 yards and the Steelers simply did whatever they wanted as they led 7-0. In the first half, Roethlisberger completed passes to eight different receivers. The Pats, defense, though responded on the second possession with two sacks. One by Kyle Van Noy and the other by Jonathan Jones. The Steelers wanted to spread the Pats out and on their third possession they did so so successfully. Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for a 17-yard touchdown pass.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers defense was as good as advertised. Pressuring the Pats and covering well. It was likely the best defense the Pats faced all year. Joe Haden made a big interception when the Pats had the ball in the red zone late in the fourth quarter. Not a play, that Pats fans are used to seeing Brady make. Brady said afterwards he was just trying to throw the ball out of bounds. Brady's arm strength might have a declined a little and he couldn't get the ball out of bounds.
After the game, Bill Belichick admitted his players competed hard and that the Steelers made a few more plays. It was perhaps an admission that his players are trying and the talent might be just short for a Super Bowl run. Not often that Belichick states he is proud of his team after a loss.
"I was proud of our guys, how we battled all the way from the first play to the last. In the end, we just came up a little short. It's one of those typical tough football games against the Steelers and like I said they did a little more than we did tonight. That's pretty much the story the way I saw it," Belichick said.
The Pats will be in the playoffs and there are no great teams in the AFC so a Super Bowl run is not unrealistic. Brady said the Steelers had a few surprises defensively, but that was not unexpected. Most teams try to confuse Brady and be unpredictable.
"Obviously, we are not playing well enough to win. Just missed opportunities - too many plays we got opportunities to do stuff with it and we don't. That's football. I wish the outcomes were different. We just have to get back to work," Brady said.
This is the first time the Pats have lost five games since 2009 - a season that ended with a loss in the Wild Card Round. The Pats, though, are not going to engage in self-pity.
"We are in a tough spot obviously. We put ourselves in a tough spot, but at the same time we haven't lost our belief in each other and we still have a lot to play for. There's really no time to feel sorry for ourselves. We need to figure it out, keep competing and keep trying to improve," Slater said.
A tough spot? Most teams in the league would like to be in such a tough spot - one win away from a division title.