Patriots In Perilous, Uncharted Waters After Rare December Losing Streak

PITTSBURGH — After last year’s game in Pittsburgh, the New England Patriots busted out the commemorative hats and T-shirts, celebrating the AFC East title they’d just clinched at Heinz Field.

The scene was markedly different Sunday after their latest visit to the Steel City.

With a chance to clinch their 10th consecutive division title after the Miami Dolphins lost in Minnesota earlier in the day, the Patriots fell flat, committing a season-high 14 penalties, allowing 142 rushing yards to a third-string rookie running back and scoring just three points over the final three quarters in a 17-10 loss to the Steelers.

“Obviously,” quarterback Tom Brady said after the game, “what we’re doing isn’t good enough.”

After eight consecutive seasons with four or fewer losses, the Patriots now sit at 9-5 with two games left to play (at home against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets). They went just 3-5 in games away from Gillette Stadium, finishing below .500 on the road for the first time since 2009. And they’ve now lost back-to-back games in December for the first time since 2002 — the only year a Brady-led Patriots team has failed to make the postseason.

More importantly, Sunday’s loss coupled with the Houston Texans’ win over the New York Jets the previous evening dropped the Patriots from second to third in the AFC standings. Houston now controls its own destiny and can secure a first-round playoff bye with wins over the Philadelphia Eagles and Jacksonville Jaguars in its final two games.

The Patriots, then, could be looking at their first wild-card game since the 2009 season. They were steamrolled by Ray Rice and the Baltimore Ravens 33-14 in that contest to cap what’s widely considered the most dysfunctional season of the Brady/Bill Belichick era.

“We’re in a tough spot, obviously,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, who joined the Patriots in 2008. “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 for us to feel sorry for ourselves. We need to figure it out and keep competing and keep trying to improve.”

The Patriots actually performed well in several areas against the Steelers. Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson did a nice job limiting Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The run game showed improvement, with Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White combining to average 5.1 yards per carry. Duron Harmon intercepted two Ben Roethlisberger passes. Pittsburgh scored just 17 points.

New England again was unable to put together a complete performance, however. The penalty and run defense issues were the most glaring (hope you had Jaylen Samuels on your fantasy team), but Josh Gordon and Steelers killer Rob Gronkowski also combined for just three catches on seven targets for 40 yards, and Brady threw a costly red-zone interception on a pass he was trying to throw out of bounds.

For the second consecutive week, they came up just short.

“Winning in this league is hard,” Harmon said. “It’s always going to be hard. Just for whatever reason, the ball isn’t bouncing our way, but you can’t sit here and sulk about it. The only think you can do is just find ways to win. And that’s the type of people we’ve got on our team. We’ve got fighters. We’ve got people who are mentally tough. So if there’s any group of guys who are going to figure it out, I know it’s this group that I go to work with each and every day with and grind with. We’ll figure it out. It’s just a tough one to swallow right now.”

The Patriots still can earn a first-round bye if they win out and the Texans stumble, but there’s now a strong chance they’d need to play at least one road playoff game in order to reach the Super Bowl. Their last road playoff win? That came way back in 2006, with three losses following in the years since.

“We’re going to fix it,” Harmon said. “We’re going to fix it for sure. We’re going to be better next week, and when we get our opportunity to play again on the road, we’re going to be better, and we’re going to do everything we can to get a win.”

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Thumbnail photo via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images

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