Uncharacteristic mistakes cost Patriots in loss to Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Last week’s loss on the final play of the game on a 69-yard play was a gut-punch to the New England Patriots, as they had the game won and let it slip away in excruciating fashion. Sunday’s 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers falls into a different category: The Patriots didn’t deserve to win, mainly because of self-inflicted wounds.

Surprisingly, the Patriots' offense is struggling to find what it does well consistently at a time on the football calendar when it usually has it all figured out.

They were 3-of-10 on third down, and the team as a whole had 14 accepted penalties for 106 yards.

It all sparks questions as to how deep of a postseason run they might ultimately be able to make.

The Patriots (9-5) had plenty of chances, but made things much harder on themselves than they had to be.

Their three dropped passes were a season high. They had a stretch in the middle of the game when they punted on five straight drives, which was their longest such streak within a game since Week 17 of the 2015 season against the Dolphins (five straight punts).

The defense started slow before settling down, but still is giving up rushing yards at an alarming rate.

Oh, and Tom Brady threw his first red-zone interception in two seasons, ending a promising fourth-quarter drive.

“Just missed opportunities, I think that’s what it comes down to,” said Brady, who relayed that he was trying to throw the ball away on the interception, but just didn’t get enough on it. “There are plays we have opportunities to do something and we don’t. That’s football. I wish outcomes were different – this week, last week – but we just have to get back to work.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick said the game basically came down to penalties and poor production in the red zone (the Patriots were 0 for 3), as it was obvious that the team “needs to do a better job there.”

Still, he struck a more positive chord than expected.

“I’m proud of our guys. I thought we battled all the way – from the first play to the last – but in the end we came up a little short,” he said. “They made a few more plays than we did. It was a typical, tough football game against the Steelers. They did a little more than we did tonight.”

So unlike last week, when the Patriots were shocked at a sudden ending in Miami, this result was more of a slow burn with too much bad football for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. Yes, credit the Steelers for some inspired play. But the number of unforced errors and mistakes was stunning.

Nonetheless, the Patriots are still in good position to clinch the AFC East, which they would do by beating either the Buffalo Bills next week or the New York Jets in the season finale. Both games are at home, where the Patriots are a much different team.

Sunday’s loss means the Patriots finish the season 3-5 on the road. The only time they have finished with a losing record on the road in the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era was 2009, when they were 2-6.

Thus, the Patriots will most likely be looking to buck history, as the 2010 Green Bay Packers are the only team to win a Super Bowl with a losing road record. With the No. 1 seed no longer in their grasp, the Patriots will likely have to go on the road in the playoffs.

They are currently the No. 3 seed, which means this could be the first season they don't have a first-round bye since 2009.

“Obviously what we’re doing isn’t good enough. Some things are a little more challenging on the road and you have to embrace those things,” Brady said. “We just haven’t done a great job of that.”

Belichick always says that it doesn’t matter where the Patriots play, it’s how they play. On Sunday, they simply didn’t play well enough in a game that was there for the taking.

In many ways, that hurt just as much as last week’s loss on the final play.