The Patriots dropped the ball on Sunday.
Not only did they blow an opportunity to strengthen their hold on the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff structure, and the bye week that comes along with it, they blew a chance to threaten the Kansas City Chiefs for the top spot in the conference.
Mathematical permutations still exist for New England catching Kansas City – just like they do for the Patriots missing the playoffs altogether for the first time since 2008 – but each exercise is a waste of time, because we all know what the reality is: while New England is still a sure thing to win the AFC East, it missed out on a golden opportunity to avoid wild-card weekend thanks to, among other things, dropped passes.
Most alarming from the 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday has to be the 14 penalties called against the Patriots, including eight pre-snap whistles. That shouldn’t happen to a Pop Warner football team, a Marvin Lewis-coached football team, and most certainly not a Bill Belichick-coached football team. But it did, and still New England nearly escaped the Steel City with a win.
“It’s definitely an issue for us,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said of the penalties. “We walked on the edge for a little bit, we had a game a few weeks ago where we got away with that, but it bit us in the butt this past weekend and we can’t continue to do that – especially this time of year.”
Among the other factors contributing to the demise of the Patriots on Sunday was a sloppy passing attack. Tom Brady wasn’t at his best vs. Pittsburgh, as evidenced by his interception to Joe Haden, but he sure wasn’t helped out by four dropped passes by a crop of normally-reliable receiving options.
Julian Edelman failed to hang on to two of Brady’s passes, while James White and Josh Gordon dropped one each.
The timing of the drops was brutal. With the game tied at 7-7 in the first quarter, the Patriots just having forced the Steelers to punt, Edelman and White’s had drops on consecutive passing plays for New England.
Ryan Allen pinned Pittsburgh down to its own 8-yard line on a punt…giving way to a 10-play, 92-yard scoring drive for the Steelers, after which they’d never trail again.
The Patriots received the ball to begin the second half, down 14-7. After Sony Michel ripped off 13 yards on New England’s first play from scrimmage, he gained just 4 yards on his next two rushing attempts, bringing up a third-and-6. Brady looked Gordon’s way for just the second time in the game, and the ball went right through his hands.
It was also the last time Brady targeted Gordon in the game, who was curiously missing from the desperation play the Patriots ran on a fourth-and-15 from the Pittsburgh 21-yard line with 0:20 left in the fourth quarter. For what it’s worth, Gordon was made unavailable to reporters inside the locker room on Wednesday.
“Sometimes you have to take what the defense gives you or what they happen to have called on that particular play,” Belichick said of the final play of the game. “You don’t control that. You can only control what you call. Sometimes, those match up well; sometimes they don’t. I’d say each situation is really its own entity and has its own individual characteristics.”
And then there’s Rob Gronkowski, who had just two catches for 21 yards vs. the Steelers, and Chris Hogan, who aside from scoring New England’s lone touchdown on a 63-yard pass from Brady in the first quarter, managed one catch for 5 yards.
These are the weapons Brady has at his disposal, for better or for worse, the rest of the way. There’s no use in crying over Brandin Cooks (72 catches, 1,107 yards with the Los Angels Rams) or Danny Amendola (52 catches, 509 yards for the Miami Dolphins) anymore. No use in wondering what could have been with Jordan Matthews, whom the Patriots placed on injured reserve just days into training camp (after receiving an injury settlement, he has 18 catches for 287 yards for the Philadelphia Eagles). Same with Malcolm Mitchell, who may never play again at this rate.
The only way the Patriots have a prayer of getting to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta on Feb. 3 is via their offense, which is coming off one of its worst performances at this juncture of the season in recent memory.
For as much as dropping a pass seems like a physical mistake, it’s a mental one. The sign of a problem for the entire team vs. the Steelers: they just weren’t ready to go, on the road, again.
“We talked about it once, and we’ve got to make sure it never happens again,” Patrick Chung said, lamenting the penalties once again. “We’ve got to move on.”
Fortunately for New England, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets should offer very little resistance over the next two weeks. Though not the same as a first-round bye, the season finale on Dec. 30 could very well feel like one, with the Jets likely getting ready to fire Todd Bowles.
The biggest tell over the next two weeks for the Patriots won’t be their margin of victory vs. the Bills or Jets, but how they look in doing so. For as trying a year as it’s seemed…New England is still 6-0 at home. If the mental mistakes from the road – the penalties, the drops, the blown assignments, the missed kicks, all of it – persist at Gillette Stadium, then start mentally preparing yourself for a quiet January in Foxboro.