PITTSBURGH — The New England Patriots do probably not look, act or play like the New England Patriots anymore, and the reality is another growing older and declining NFL contender could be presumed lifeless.

Not this contender. Not this quarterback. Not this coach.

For Invoice Belichick and Tom Brady, these have been two weeks trapped inside the pages of a horror novel. Final Sunday in South Florida, Brady took that sack at the finish of the first half, and Belichick put Rob Gronkowski on the discipline to play protection at the finish of the second half.

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This Sunday in Pittsburgh, Brady threw a ghastly second-and-aim interception in the fourth quarter to keep away from a sack, and Belichick coached a workforce that was good for 14 penalties, together with a month’s price dedicated earlier than the snap. The Patriots additionally allowed a rookie fifth-spherical draft decide named Jaylen Samuels, who had rushed for a grand sum of 59 yards all season, to acquire 142 on 19 carries and make all of western Pennsylvania overlook each nice Steelers working again from Franco Harris to Le’Veon Bell, by no means thoughts James Conner.

“It is apparent,” Brady stated after this 17-10 defeat, “that what we’re doing isn’t adequate. It is simply sort of a cumulative factor.”

The sort that may encourage some observers to write a dynasty’s epitaph. The Miami meltdown was an all-timer, after all, however the Patriots of outdated (not to be confused with these outdated Patriots) would have dusted that one off and rebounded with a forceful reminder of who they’re and what they’ve carried out to Pittsburgh over the years. Belichick and Brady and Gronkowski may have legally modified their surnames to Rooney — that is how a lot they’ve owned the Steelers.

Tom Brady accomplished 25 of 36 passes for 279 yards with one landing go and one interception in Sunday’s loss to the Steelers. Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports activities

As an alternative, the Patriots notarized themselves as a awful highway workforce, ending three-5 away from Foxborough this season. Brady had an opportunity on his final drive Sunday to make every little thing proper, to arrange additional time, and his possibilities had been compromised by (what else?) a penalty — this time a holding name on Shaq Mason. After his last go into the finish zone fell incomplete with 14 seconds left, Brady sat for a second on the discipline, unbuckled his chinstrap after which reached for a lineman to pull him again to his ft. His excessive frustration was by no means extra evident than it was earlier on the drive, when a false begin compelled him to fireplace the ball into the floor and throw up his palms in disgust.

The Patriots scored a landing on their third snap of the sport, a 63-yarder from Brady to an absurdly extensive-open Chris Hogan, then by no means once more discovered the finish zone. And yet after the Patriots suffered their first back-to-back December losses since 2002, it will nonetheless be silly to depend them out.

Belichick and Brady will certainly beat the Payments and the Jets in Foxborough to end 11-5 and win their 10th consecutive AFC East title. In that state of affairs, if the Houston Texans lose one in all their last two video games, New England will likely be the 2-seed and can doubtless advance to an AFC Championship Recreation in Kansas Metropolis or Los Angeles, the place the stress (for a change) will likely be on the different guys, specifically the ringless likes of Andy Reid or Philip Rivers.

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Even when the Texans win out, forcing a No. three-seed New England to host a wild-card spherical sport in opposition to the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts or Tennessee Titans, a possible divisional-spherical sport in Houston would hardly be a forbidding proposition. Although the Patriots are zero-three in highway playoff video games since profitable at San Diego after the 2006 season, Belichick is 10-1 in opposition to the Texans and 5-zero in opposition to his former assistant, Invoice O’Brien. The Patriots may even be favored to win a sport that would ship them the place they had been in all probability headed all alongside: to Kansas Metropolis or Los Angeles for the proper to symbolize the AFC in the Super Bowl.

“We put ourselves in a troublesome spot,” stated particular-groups ace Matthew Slater, “however at the similar time, we have not misplaced our perception in one another, and we nonetheless have so much to play for.”

In fact, in the event that they hold taking part in like the final Belichick/Brady workforce to lose a minimum of 5 video games — the 2009 Patriots, which went 10-6 — they might additionally go one-and-carried out in the postseason, at residence, identical to the ’09 Patriots did. That is the place the good thing about the doubt is available in. Belichick has earned it. Brady has earned it. Gronk and Julian Edelman have earned it, too.

None of these 4 horsemen has been himself this season, if solely as a result of nothing lasts ceaselessly in sports activities. That did not change Sunday. Belichick and Brady received outcoached and outplayed by Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, opponents they’d beforehand dominated. Gronk had at all times made a residing in opposition to the center of Pittsburgh’s secondary, and yet this time, he contributed solely two catches for 21 yards. Edelman had good numbers (seven receptions, 90 yards) however uncharacteristically dedicated penalties on consecutive third-quarter snaps.

The Steelers sacked Tom Brady simply as soon as, however they compelled the Patriots to go zero-three in the purple zone. AP Picture/Don Wright

“They made just a few extra performs than we did,” Belichick would say afterward. “They are saying penalties in the purple space are just about the distinction in a sport, so we’d like to do a greater job there. … We’ve to play higher to win these video games. Coach higher. Play higher.”

The sport did characteristic one Belichickian blast from the previous, a particular-groups sequence in the second quarter that regarded extra like a Harlem Globetrotters routine. A Patriots punt bounding into the finish zone was stopped by Jonathan Jones, whose midair, backhanded flip of the ball off a headfirst dive gave teammate Rex Burkhead an opportunity to additionally leap over the aim line and bat the ball between a leaping Slater’s legs earlier than it was downed at the 1 by New England’s Ramon Humber.

Belichick referred to as it “an incredible play by each guys.” Per week after the disastrous, final-play follies in opposition to the Dolphins, it was additionally a scene that steered Belichick nonetheless is aware of a factor or two about making ready his workforce.

In the finish Sunday, Belichick was the second-greatest coach inside Heinz Subject, and Brady threw his first purple zone interception in opposition to the Steelers in 13 years. The Patriots had been 125-5 when Brady had began and their opponents had scored 17 or fewer factors, however they left Pittsburgh 125-6.

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Chris Hogan goes throughout the center and is left on their lonesome by the Steelers’ protection and Tom Brady connects with him for a 63-yard landing.

They may go forward now and beat the Payments and Jets on muscle reminiscence, after which enter the event as both the 2- or three-seed. The Patriots look a bit older and a bit slower, and generally they cannot cease anyone or something on protection.

Every other franchise could be lifeless and buried, little doubt. However these are the New England Patriots. They nonetheless have the best coach and quarterback of all time and an inexpensive sufficient postseason path to one way or the other make this factor work.

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