Patriots-Steelers takeaways: Bailey Zappe's 3 TDs lead Pats to upset win originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
But thanks to a phenomenal first half performance by starting quarterback Bailey Zappe and the offense, the Patriots snapped their five-game losing streak and left Acrisure Stadium with a 21-18 victory. The Patriots improve their record to 3-10, which keeps them at the bottom of the AFC standings.
The 21 points the Patriots scored in the first half were eight more than they put up in the previous three games combined. They also had three passing touchdowns for the first time since Week 1. New England's opening-drive touchdown was its first of the season.
The offense had a much tougher time moving the football in the second half, but the defense did its job, including a key fourth-down stop in the final two minutes.
The Patriots will have a few extra days of rest before they have to prepare for a Week 15 matchup vs. the Kansas City Chiefs at home.
Before we look ahead to that matchup, here are four takeaways from Patriots-Steelers:
Zappe-led offense shows huge improvement
Mac Jones isn't likely to take another snap at quarterback this season after the excellent performance Zappe gave Thursday night. The second-year QB came out firing in the first half, completing 14 of 21 pass attempts for 196 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Zappe's favorite target in Steelers' territory was tight end Hunter Henry. This duo connected for touchdowns twice in the first half, including an 8-yard pass that put New England up 14-3.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 8, 2023
The energy Zappe played with seemed to be contagious. All of a sudden, the Patriots offense started to play with a level of confidence and swagger that we haven't seen for most of the year. JuJu Smith-Schuster looked like a completely different player with a season-high 90 yards. The veteran wideout had 81 receiving yards in the previous four games combined. Veteran running back Ezekiel Elliott also had his best game with the Patriots on Thursday, tallying 140 total yards and a touchdown. He led all Patriots pass-catchers with seven receptions.
Zappe finished 19-for-28 for 240 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Earlier this week, Zappe admitted the Patriots made a halftime adjustment last week against the Los Angeles Chargers to take more shots deep down field. They carried that strategy into Thursday as Zappe went 4-for-6 on passes that traveled 10-plus yards in the air. His 37-yard pass to Smith-Schuster in the first quarter was New England's first completion of the season that traveled 30-plus yards in the air.
From @ESPNStatsInfo: Bailey Zappe's 37-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster was the Patriots' first completion of 30+ air yards this season.
The Patriots were 0-of-18 on those throws this season entering the night, the only team without such a completion.
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 8, 2023
The offensive line did a much better job Thursday compared to last week. The Chargers sacked Zappe five times in Week 13, several of which came on critical third and fourth downs. The Steelers sacked Zappe only twice and didn't generate a consistent pass rush. The extra time to throw really helped Zappe pick apart a good Steelers secondary.
Zappe is now 3-1 as a starter in his young career. He has six touchdowns with two interceptions in those games. He's not necessarily lighting up the stat sheet, but he's also not making the costly mistakes (turnovers) that we saw over and over again from Jones all season.
Barring some sort of injury, there's no reason to start anyone over Zappe at quarterback over the final four games. A strong finish to the season could help Zappe stick around as the backup in 2024.
Birthday boy dominates
Hunter Henry has been one of the skill position players most impacted by the Patriots' lackluster quarterback play this season. He is a very good pass-catching tight end, but it's hard to put up quality stats when the quarterbacks rarely throw for 200 yards or multiple scores in the same game.
Henry made an immediate impact Thursday night. He hauled in two first-half touchdowns from Zappe, including a fantastic catch in the second quarter that put New England up 21-3.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 8, 2023
Henry finished with three catches for 40 yards and two touchdowns on four targets. He has five touchdown catches on the season and three in his last three games.
The Patriots made a bunch of signings in 2021 free agency, and it wasn't a very productive class outside of Matthew Judon and Henry. The veteran tight end has been a dependable player for New England's offense. He hasn't missed a single game as a Patriot, while also tallying 16 touchdowns over that span.
Henry's future with the Patriots is interesting. He's able to become an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, and he figures to be a coveted player. It would make sense for the Patriots to keep him, considering they have very little at tight end going forward with both Henry and Mike Gesicki on expiring contracts. But does Henry want to be part of a rebuild at this stage of his career?
If he leaves in free agency, the Patriots might have to draft a tight end, which they haven't had much success doing since taking Rob Gronkowski in the second round in 2010.
Rough night for J.C. Jackson
Jackson has enjoyed an up-and-down season in the Patriots secondary, and Thursday was one of the bad games.
The veteran cornerback was penalized for pass interference in the first quarter, which wiped out an interception and extended a drive that ended with a Steelers field goal. He also was in coverage on Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson's 25-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 8, 2023
Jackson picked up another pass interference penalty trying to defend tight end Pat Freiermuth early in the fourth quarter that gave the Steelers a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. They scored a TD two plays later to trim New England's lead to 21-18.
The Patriots' depth at cornerback has been hit hard by injuries all season. They need Jackson to be more consistent in coverage and cut down on the penalties. The defense's margin for error is so slim given the struggles of the offense, and that makes self-inflicted mistakes like penalties even more costly.
Patriots still own No. 2 pick in 2024 NFL Draft
Despite the victory, the Patriots remain in the No. 2 pick position with a 3-10 record. The Arizona Cardinals also have a 3-10 record, but the Patriots have a worse strength of schedule (.524 to .558), so they own the tiebreaker. The team with the weaker strength of schedule gets the better pick in the event of a tie.
However, the Patriots' odds of getting a top-two pick, which were 60 percent before this game (per ESPN Analytics), are now lower.
The concern for the Patriots is if they win another game, all of a sudden they fall into the No. 4 to No. 8 pick range with all of the other four-win teams. The Carolina Panthers (1-11), Patriots (3-10) and Cardinals (3-10) are the only teams with fewer than four wins.
The Patriots will be guaranteed a top-three pick if they don't win any of their remaining four games. They still have the Chiefs, Broncos, Bills and Jets left to play. The Broncos and Jets are beatable opponents.
Going from a top-three pick all the way down to No. 6, No. 7 or No. 8 as the result of winning a few meaningless late-season games would be a disastrous outcome for the Patriots.