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No last-second meltdown. No double-lateral magic by the opponents. No, the New England Patriots couldn't point to anything fluky in a 17-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
Not after a game in which they were penalized 14 times for 106 yards
One in which they punted on five straight possessions and managed all of three points in three trips to the red zone.
One in which the Steelers finally figured out a way to slow down Rob Gronkowski and keep Tom Brady from carving them up, something he'd done with remarkable ease throughout the years.
The Patriots (9-5) are still in comfortable position to win their 10th straight AFC East title. Yet rarely during their dynasty have they looked so vulnerable so late in the season. New England dropped its second straight and fell to 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium, meaning it will almost certainly have to go on the road at least once and possibly twice to reach another Super Bowl.
Not that one seemed particularly close at hand during another anemic showing in their road white uniforms. The Patriots have lost five games in the regular season for the first time since 2009, which also happened to be the last time they finished under .500 on the road (2-6). A week ago it was Miami's dramatic 69-yard series of laterals on the final snap. This time around, the issues were far more basic.
"We obviously haven't played very well on the road," Brady said. "Obviously what we are doing isn't good enough. It's just a cumulative thing. We're out here as a team trying to compete. When you're on the road you have to play well. Some things are a little bit more challenging on the road. We have to embrace those things. And we just haven't done a great job on that."
Brady finished 25 of 36 for 279 yards to become the fourth player in NFL history to top 70,000 career yards passing, but had trouble getting the ball downfield after a busted coverage left Chris Hogan open for a 63-yard score on New England's third offensive snap. Gronkowski, who came in averaging 111 yards receiving in six games against Pittsburgh, caught two passes for 21 yards.
The Patriots also had trouble finishing drives. Each of their last three possessions ended up in the red zone, but the only points they managed were a 33-yard Stephen Gostkowski field goal in the third quarter that trimmed Pittsburgh's lead to 14-10.
"Just not converting, I think that's all it is," running back James White said. "Not executing the way we want to. We have to be better."
All the penalties didn't help. The missteps came in a wide variety of ways, from pass interference to false starts to offensive and defensive holding, mistakes that made momentum difficult to come by. The most damaging came in the final moments.
New England had second-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 11 with 37 seconds to go needing a touchdown. Right guard Shaq Mason was flagged for holding, pushing the ball back to the 21. Three Brady incompletions — the last a pass intended for Julian Edelman that was broken up by safety Morgan Burnett — and it was over.
"Obviously, there is holding on every play in the NFL," Brady said. "That's what we do, we hold. It's just whether you get called or not. If they are calling it, then you just have to do a little bit less of it."
Edelman, who wore cleats honoring the 11 people killed in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, pointed the finger at himself for some of New England's issues.
"We definitely have to be a little more poised," Edelman said. "That starts with me. I had two penalties. It put us in a hole. We had a lot of penalties and you can't have that against a good team. Plain and simple. That's a good football team."
Just one that had not played like it lately. The Steelers came in having lost three straight and winless against New England since 2011. Yet they never trailed and had little trouble moving the ball on the ground with rookie running back Jaylen Samuels, who ran for a season-high 142 yards in his second NFL start.
The Patriots have allowed at least 104 yards in each of their five losses.
"They did a good job of running the ball," safety Duron Harmon said. "That's something obviously the last few weeks we haven't been as well against ... but I know [the defensive linemen] are working their tails off to try and stop it and they'll continue to work their tails off until we do stop them. I'm confident in the group we have."
It's a swagger that comes from having come through so many times, swagger that may be lacking a bit this time around.
"Every year is different, every team is different," Gronkowski said. "Every year we just have to stick together. We have to keep on grinding. We have to keep on working and we've got to keep moving forward."
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