Is it time to panic about the Patriots?

Terez PaylorSenior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

The crowd at Heinz Field roared Sunday evening, the yellow towels twirling in the cold night air, as the Pittsburgh Steelers defenders — to a man — zeroed in to make one final stop.

Perhaps against a different opponent, against a different team, the Steelers would have been jumping up and down and bobbing their heads, maybe trash-talking a bit. Fourth-and-15 is a prayer for an offense, especially in a playoff atmosphere, and when the defense has the crowd at its back, it tends to give those players a little extra juice, a little extra swagger.

But the Steelers knew better, as they dared not taunt this opponent, the same one that had beaten Pittsburgh five straight times. The players could all taste it, finally, a victory against those oppressive New England Patriots and The Greatest Quarterback of All Time. All they needed was one more red-zone stop, on fourth-and-long with 20 seconds left.

So when safety Morgan Burnett knocked down Tom Brady’s desperate loft to Julian Edelman over the middle — which Brady curiously tried to fit between three players — to secure the Steelers’ 17-10 win, the party was definitely on in Western Pennsylvania.

“He’s the type of guy you can’t think the game is over with,” Burnett said. “You’ve seen him time and time again, him make comebacks and good plays.”

Ben Roethlisberger (7) watches Tom Brady do his thing on Sunday in a tight matchup that went in Pittsburgh’s favor, 17-10. (Getty Images)
Ben Roethlisberger (7) watches Tom Brady do his thing on Sunday in a tight matchup that went in Pittsburgh’s favor, 17-10. (Getty Images)

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl winner, couldn’t hide his giddiness afterward.

“If you say no, you’ll be lying a little bit,” Roethlisberger said with a grin, when asked if this one meant more because it’s the Patriots. “They’ll always have a bullseye on their chest.”

Of course they will, as long as Brady and coach Bill Belichick are there. They’ve earned that much over their 19 years together, which included Super Bowl titles and no shortage of enemies along the way. That’s why Sunday’s loss caused plenty of well-rooted discussion on social media about whether this season’s Patriots are, you know, actually Super Bowl-good.

A bad omen for the Patriots

History is not necessarily on New England’s side here. The Patriots dropped to 3-5 on the road with the loss, giving them their first losing road record since 2009, when they went 2-6 and were promptly disposed of by Baltimore in the wild-card round.

The Patriots fell to 9-5 with Sunday’s defeat and are on track to miss a first-round bye for the first time since the 2009 season. They haven’t ever made it to the Super Bowl under Belichick after playing in the wild-card round.

This is also the Patriots’ second straight loss after their fluky defeat to the Miami Dolphins last week, which marks the first time in 16 seasons the Patriots have lost two straight in December.

One could argue that Sunday night in Pittsburgh was anything but a fluke. The Patriots’ lack of discipline (14 penalties for 106 yards) was decidedly un-Patriot like. But the overall lack of offensive cohesion is the bigger concern, and it started with the passing game.

Brady’s numbers were OK on the surface — 25-of-36 for 279 yards, a touchdown and an interception — but fans who watched the game likely came away feeling concerned.

The Patriots were bad on third down again (three of 10), which has been a common theme in most of their previous losses, and Brady’s interception came in the red zone, something he hasn’t done in two seasons.

What’s more, the Patriots’ skill players dropped a cluster of passes Sunday, which is hardly reassuring considering the group of talent surrounding Brady was so middling that the Patriots felt obligated to take a chance on trading for troubled-and-unreliable receiver Josh Gordon (he had one of those drops).

Pittsburgh’s defense deserves some credit here. In a throwback performance hearkening to their defensive-led glory days, the Steelers harassed Brady and hit him seven times, while also limiting star tight end Rob Gronkowski to two catches for 21 yards. That has always been the key to succeeding against New England.

It’s going to take a rugged defense to topple Brady

The Patriots have played in three of the past four Super Bowls, winning two of them, but when AFC teams have toppled them in January, they’ve often needed smothering defenses to do so. The Ravens (2012 season) and Denver Broncos (2013, 2015) — the only other teams to represent the AFC in the big game since 2011 — had that when they went to the Super Bowl, and on Sunday, the Steelers represented a mid-grade version of those groups.

And therein lies the rub … well, sort of. Despite the Steelers’ defensive performance Sunday, the only premium defense that looms in January as a potential opponent is Baltimore’s, the league’s top-ranked unit. If the season ended today, the Patriots would face the Ravens in the wild-card round.

But if the Patriots manage to avoid them? Well, the Chargers (eighth), Texans (13th) and Chiefs (31st) will be easier to move the ball against. And while the Steelers (ninth) fared well against Brady on Sunday, the Steelers would have to face the Patriots in Foxborough if the two teams meet, which could easily make it a different story.

The Patriots’ final two regular-season games are at home against the Bills and Jets. Belichick is 60-16 against them in New England. The Patriots are finishing 11-5, which may be enough to get them a first-round bye. But even if it’s not, it doesn’t mean the Patriots still can’t make the Super Bowl if they have to play a road game in the divisional round. Kansas City is a place where many — including the Steelers, Titans and most recently, the Chargers — have come and won in devastating fashion in recent years.

Tom Brady and the Patriots haven’t had to play in the wild-card round since Jan. 10, 2010. (Getty Images)
Tom Brady and the Patriots haven’t had to play in the wild-card round since Jan. 10, 2010. (Getty Images)

While the Texans are 5-2 at home this season, they also lost a game in Houston to the Giants in September. It’s not a stretch to think Tom Freaking Brady and Bill Belichick can go in there and win in January.

Perhaps that’s why, while the Steelers were happy with the win — and many players spent a healthy amount of time on the field celebrating afterward — there was still plenty of respect for the Patriots, evidenced by what Roethlisberger briefly said to Brady after the game.

“I think I just told him that it doesn’t matter how many times I watch him, it’s amazing and it’s an honor to go against him,” Roethlisberger said.

So yes, the Steelers know what the Patriots can still do. And most importantly, the Patriots do, too.

“Obviously, we aren’t playing well enough to win, and it comes in a lot of different ways, turnovers, and just missed opportunities,” Brady said. “That’s what it comes down to. Too many plays and opportunities that we could do something with it, and we just don’t. It’s football … we just have to get back to work.”

That postseason work may start earlier than expected.

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