PITTSBURGH — The Patriots needed this one. 

After absorbing gut punch after gut punch over the previous month-plus, including the ignominy of becoming the first team in 85 years to lose three straight games without allowing more than 10 points, New England finally broke through Thursday night, winning 21-18 over the Pittsburgh Steelers. 

The Patriots’ playoff hopes have been dead for weeks, so this result will be remembered as little more than a footnote in a lost season. But the relief in the visitors’ locker room at Acrisure Stadium was palpable. 

“We deserved today,” said quarterback Bailey Zappe, who made his second consecutive start and tossed three first-half touchdown passes as New England snapped a five-game losing skid.

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Safety Jabrill Peppers, who set up one of those scores with a second-quarter interception, dedicated the win to head coach Bill Belichick, whom he believes has been unduly criticized for the Patriots’ worst season in decades. 

“I just feel good we could get it done for Bill and the rest of the coaches, said Peppers, arguably the team’s 2023 MVP.

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At 3-10, the Patriots remain a flawed team in need of an offseason makeover, especially on offense and special teams. Thursday’s result didn’t change that. But it did prove this group is not done fighting. They won’t be a pushover over the final four weeks, even if any future wins would only hurt their impending rebuild.

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Here are seven takeaways from the Week 14 victory: 

1. This didn’t change the draft outlook all that much
Yes, from a draft-pick perspective, the Patriots would have been better off losing this game. They’re now unlikely to land the No. 1 overall pick unless the 1-11 Panthers (whose selection belongs to Chicago) go on a late-season run. Based on how Carolina has played both before and since Frank Reich’s firing, that probably isn’t happening. 

But falling to the absolute bottom of the standings always was a long shot for the Patriots, and they came out of Thursday night in the same spot they entered it: second overall, between the No. 1 Bears and No. 3 Cardinals. Arizona, which also sits at 3-10, has its bye this week. 

This, of course, could change if the Patriots upset the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos or Buffalo Bills in the next three weeks, and their Week 18 matchup with the potentially Zach Wilson-led New York Jets could be huge for both teams’ draft positioning. But for now, New England stayed put. 

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2. Bailey Zappe should start for the rest of the season 
The Patriots’ quarterback of the future almost certainly is not on their current roster. And Zappe was far from perfect Thursday night, fading in the second half after throwing for three touchdowns and nearly 200 yards before halftime without injured wide receivers Demario Douglas, DeVante Parker and Kayshon Boutte.

But he played well enough against Pittsburgh, and in the second half of his first start against the Los Angeles Chargers, that there’s no longer a debate over who should be New England’s top QB. No valid case for giving Mac Jones another shot or taking a flier on Malik Cunningham, who was elevated from the practice squad but didn’t play for the second consecutive week.

Zappe’s confidence, pocket presence and willingness to push the ball downfield are what the Patriots’ offense needs right now. The second of his two touchdown passes to tight end Hunter Henry was one of the best passes by either New England QB this season. Barring a full-fledged meltdown against Kansas City, it should be his show for these final four games, then formulate a better plan for 2024 once the offseason hits. 

3. Zeke’s still got it
Zappe called Thursday’s performance from running back Ezekiel Elliott “old-time Zeke.” While the 28-year-old didn’t shred the Steelers’ defense on the ground like he used to in his Dallas Cowboys heyday, this was his best all-around outing in years. 

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Playing all but five offensive snaps with Rhamondre Stevenson out with a high ankle sprain, Elliott caught seven passes for 72 yards and a touchdown and racked up 140 yards from scrimmage, his most in a game since 2021. His receiving yard total was tied for the fifth-highest of his career, with the four better all coming in 2018 or earlier. 

More than two-thirds of Zappe’s 240 passing yards came on throws to Elliott or JuJu Smith-Schuster, who turned in by far his best game as a Patriot in his return to Pittsburgh (four catches, 90 yards). Elliott even chipped in as an emergency defender, making an open-field tackle after Zappe’s one interception to prevent a pick-six. 

With Stevenson expected to miss at least one more game (and perhaps the rest of the season), Elliott can expect more heavy workloads moving forward. He’s ready for that, saying he’s never felt this fresh in December. 

4. The Patriots neutralized Pittsburgh’s top weapons
Belichick said after the game that New England’s priorities on offense and defense, respectively, were limiting T.J. Watt and George Pickens. Check and check. 

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Pickens finished with just 19 yards on five catches and spent most of the game visibly ticked off at quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (who was very bad Thursday night). Watt, after suffering a minor injury on the game’s first play, was a relative non-factor in Pittsburgh’s pass rush, registering four pressures, no QB hits and no sacks. 

Kudos to right tackle Mike Onwenu, who bounced back from an uncharacteristically rough outing against LA’s Khalil Mack to stymie Watt, the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. This performance will be a nice feather in Onwenu’s cap as he prepares to enter free agency for the first time this offseason.  

5. The Patriots’ run defense is elite
The Steelers averaged just 2.9 yards per carry Thursday night. The Chargers managed 1.2 per rush the previous week. No team this season has defended the run better than the Patriots, who lead the NFL in yards per carry allowed (3.2). In fact, few clubs in the last decade have done so more effectively.

That average, if it holds, would be the lowest since 2014, when the Detroit Lions held opponents to 3.17 yards per tote. Only six teams in the last 20 seasons were at 3.2 or lower. 

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The Patriots have been without two of their top defensive playmakers (Matthew Judon and Christian Gonzalez) since early October, but they’re still stocked with ferocious run defenders. Christian Barmore, Ja’Whaun Bentley, Anfernee Jennings, Kyle Dugger, Peppers and Mack Wilson all made impact plays in the run game against Pittsburgh, with Davon Godchaux and Lawrence Guy holding things down in the middle. 

New England’s defense also leads the league in expected points added per rush and run-play success rate.

6. Two depth linebackers are flourishing
By the end of last season, Jennings was an afterthought in New England’s defense and Wilson was only playing on special teams. Fast forward a year, and both have emerged as key playmakers in the Patriots’ suddenly underrated linebacking corps.

Jennings, a healthy scratch in Weeks 1 and 2, has been excellent against the run since Judon’s injury thrust him into a more prominent role. He rag-dolled 6-foot-7, 265-pound Steelers tight end Darnell Washington on a pair of tackles for loss Thursday night. Four 2020 Patriots draftees are impending free agents, and we’d give Jennings the highest odds of re-signing (Onwenu, Dugger and Josh Uche are the others). 

Wilson, meanwhile, has shown remarkable improvement since this time last year, when the Patriots phased him out of the defensive rotation entirely. He had a sack and a pass breakup Thursday night and teamed up with Dugger and Bentley for a key fourth-down stop. 

7. Something needs to be done about the special teams
The kicking-game errors occur on a near-weekly basis for New England, and they have for years now. The most blatant on Thursday was Ty Montgomery’s weak effort in punt protection that led to a Steelers block deep in Patriots territory.

That play gave Pittsburgh a short field, setting up a touchdown that made it a three-point game in the fourth quarter. It also got Montgomery benched, with Dugger taking his place on the next Patriots punt.

This game also featured a boneheaded unnecessary roughness penalty on Brenden Schooler, Bryce Baringer putting far too much mustard on two touchbacks, Myles Bryant’s and Montgomery’s punt/kick returns going nowhere, and Jahlani Tavai nearly committing an inexcusable offsides penalty on fourth-and-1. Steelers long snapper Christian Kuntz saved Tavai from embarrassment by getting flagged for a controversial false start on the same play. 

The Patriots have three dedicated special teams coaches (Joe Judge, Cam Achord and Joe Houston) and used real capital in free agency and the draft to improve these units. Yet somehow, they continue to rank among the NFL’s worst and least disciplined. 

Featured image via Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports Images