PITTSBURGH -- The New England Patriots do not really look, act or play like the New England Patriots anymore, and the truth is any other aging and declining NFL contender would be presumed dead.
Not this contender. Not this quarterback. Not this coach.
For Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, these have been two weeks trapped inside the pages of a horror novel. Last Sunday in South Florida, Brady took that sack at the end of the first half, and Belichick put Rob Gronkowski on the field to play defense at the end of the second half.
This Sunday in Pittsburgh, Brady threw a ghastly second-and-goal interception in the fourth quarter to avoid a sack, and Belichick coached a team that was good for 14 penalties, including a month's worth committed before the snap. The Patriots also allowed a rookie fifth-round draft pick named Jaylen Samuels, who had rushed for a grand sum of 59 yards all season, to gain 142 on 19 carries and make all of western Pennsylvania forget every great Steelers running back from Franco Harris to Le'Veon Bell, never mind James Conner.
"It's obvious," Brady said after this 17-10 defeat, "that what we're doing isn't good enough. It's just kind of a cumulative thing."
The kind that might inspire some observers to write a dynasty's epitaph. The Miami meltdown was an all-timer, of course, but the Patriots of old (not to be confused with these old Patriots) would have dusted that one off and rebounded with a forceful reminder of who they are and what they have done to Pittsburgh over the years. Belichick and Brady and Gronkowski could have legally changed their surnames to Rooney -- that's how much they've owned the Steelers.
Instead, the Patriots notarized themselves as a lousy road team, finishing 3-5 away from Foxborough this season. Brady had a chance on his last drive Sunday to make everything right, to set up overtime, and his chances were compromised by (what else?) a penalty -- this time a holding call on Shaq Mason. After his final pass into the end zone fell incomplete with 14 seconds left, Brady sat for a moment on the field, unbuckled his chinstrap and then reached for a lineman to pull him back to his feet. His extreme frustration was never more evident than it was earlier on the drive, when a false start compelled him to fire the ball into the ground and throw up his hands in disgust.
The Patriots scored a touchdown on their third snap of the game, a 63-yarder from Brady to an absurdly wide-open Chris Hogan, then never again found the end zone. And yet after the Patriots suffered their first back-to-back December losses since 2002, it would still be foolish to count them out.
Belichick and Brady will surely beat the Bills and the Jets in Foxborough to finish 11-5 and win their 10th consecutive AFC East title. In that scenario, if the Houston Texans lose one of their final two games, New England will be the 2-seed and will likely advance to an AFC Championship Game in Kansas City or Los Angeles, where the pressure (for a change) will be on the other guys, namely the ringless likes of Andy Reid or Philip Rivers.
Even if the Texans win out, forcing a No. 3-seed New England to host a wild-card round game against the Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts or Tennessee Titans, a likely divisional-round game in Houston would hardly be a forbidding proposition. Though the Patriots are 0-3 in road playoff games since winning at San Diego after the 2006 season, Belichick is 10-1 against the Texans and 5-0 against his former assistant, Bill O'Brien. The Patriots might even be favored to win a game that could send them where they were probably headed all along: to Kansas City or Los Angeles for the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
"We put ourselves in a tough spot," said special-teams ace Matthew Slater, "but at the same time, we haven't lost our belief in each other, and we still have a lot to play for."
Of course, if they keep playing like the last Belichick/Brady team to lose at least five games -- the 2009 Patriots, which went 10-6 -- they could also go one-and-done in the postseason, at home, just like the '09 Patriots did. This is where the benefit of the doubt comes in. Belichick has earned it. Brady has earned it. Gronk and Julian Edelman have earned it, too.
None of those four horsemen has been himself this season, if only because nothing lasts forever in sports. That didn't change Sunday. Belichick and Brady got outcoached and outplayed by Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, opponents they'd previously dominated. Gronk had always made a living against the middle of Pittsburgh's secondary, and yet this time, he contributed only two catches for 21 yards. Edelman had good numbers (seven receptions, 90 yards) but uncharacteristically committed penalties on consecutive third-quarter snaps.
"They made a few more plays than we did," Belichick would say afterward. "They say penalties in the red area are pretty much the difference in a game, so we need to do a better job there. ... We have to play better to win these games. Coach better. Play better."
The game did feature one Belichickian blast from the past, a special-teams sequence in the second quarter that looked more like a Harlem Globetrotters routine. A Patriots punt bounding into the end zone was stopped by Jonathan Jones, whose midair, backhanded flip of the ball off a headfirst dive gave teammate Rex Burkhead a chance to also jump over the goal line and bat the ball between a leaping Slater's legs before it was downed at the 1 by New England's Ramon Humber.
Belichick called it "a great play by both guys." A week after the disastrous, last-play follies against the Dolphins, it was also a scene that suggested Belichick still knows a thing or two about preparing his team.
In the end Sunday, Belichick was the second-best coach inside Heinz Field, and Brady threw his first red zone interception against the Steelers in 13 years. The Patriots had been 125-5 when Brady had started and their opponents had scored 17 or fewer points, but they left Pittsburgh 125-6.
They will go ahead now and beat the Bills and Jets on muscle memory, and then enter the tournament as either the 2- or 3-seed. The Patriots look a little older and a little slower, and sometimes they can't stop anybody or anything on defense.
Any other franchise would be dead and buried, no doubt. But these are the New England Patriots. They still have the greatest coach and quarterback of all time and a reasonable enough postseason path to somehow make this thing work.