Patriots exorcise offensive demons, hang on for road win vs. Steelers

NFL

PITTSBURGH — With little else to play for other than pride, the New England Patriots turned in a gutsy performance in a 21-18 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As they showed a national television audience, playing hard hasn’t been the issue for them this season — they’ve been in close games in all but two. It’s been the execution and coming through in the clutch with game-deciding plays that has been the problem.

They finally came through in that area against the Steelers… barely.

After a sizzling first half in which they looked as good as they have all season on offense — opening up a 21-10 lead — they relied on their stingy defense to close things out in the second half. Veteran cornerback Jonathan Jones had vice-like coverage on a last-gasp fourth-down attempt by the Steelers.

Here’s what to know for both teams off Thursday night’s result:


New England Patriots

Describe the game in two words: Zappe hour. Backup-turned-starter Bailey Zappe gave the Patriots their best QB play of the season, becoming the first New England player to throw for three touchdowns in a first half since Tom Brady in 2018.

Pivotal play: Zappe’s 37-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster on the third offensive snap. It was the Patriots’ first completion of 30+ air yards on the season, as they were 0-for-18 on those throws entering the night, and it reflected their willingness to attack down the field.

Buy on a breakout performance, Part I: Tight end Hunter Henry scored two touchdowns on his 29th birthday. The captain has been a standup presence throughout a challenging season for the team and this was a just reward for him. He became the first Patriot to score a touchdown on his birthday since running back Dion Lewis on Sept. 27, 2015 (who did so on his 25th birthday). He became the fifth player over the last 30 seasons with two receiving touchdowns on his birthday, joining DeVonta Smith (’21 vs. Broncos), Jimmy Graham (’14 vs. Ravens), Terrell Owens (’03 vs. Cardinals) and Isaac Bruce (’02 vs. Chargers).

Troubling trend: The Patriots entered the night with the No. 2 draft position behind the Bears (from Carolina), but with a win to improve to 3-10, they are now tied with the Cardinals.

Buy on a breakout performance, Part II: Veteran running back Ezekiel Elliott was a workhorse, starting in place of the injured Rhamondre Stevenson. He hardly came off the field, was a dual threat as a rusher and pass-catcher, and had a terrific hustle play to record a tackle on a Bailey Zappe interception. — Mike Reiss

Next game: vs. Chiefs (1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Dec. 17)


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Bailey Zappe drops dime to Hunter Henry for their 2nd TD connection

Bailey Zappe hits Hunter Henry in stride for the duo’s second pitch-and-catch touchdown for the Patriots.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Less than five days ago, the Steelers appeared in prime position to reach the postseason, if not as the AFC North winner, then as a solid wild-card team. The offense wasn’t perfect, but it was starting to click. The defense was solid. But with the loss to the Patriots — a second consecutive loss to one of the league’s worst teams — the Steelers’ arrow is pointed anywhere but up.

The defense gave up 21 points to the team ranked dead last in points per game, and on offense, backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky and his unit couldn’t handle the constant pressure from Bill Belichick’s relentless defense, resulting in a disjointed effort of 264 total yards. After pulling within a field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers offense couldn’t even manage to get close enough for kicker Chris Boswell to close the gap with a leg that kicked a 56-yard field goal in the first quarter.

After losing to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, some Steelers admitted they took the then-two win team too lightly, and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But midway through the second quarter, the Patriots opened up a 21-3 lead, signaling that either the Steelers went back on their promise, or worse yet, they were powerless to uphold it.

Coming off a solid, if not convincing win against the Cincinnati Bengals and facing a favorable schedule in the final month of the season, the Steelers looked to be righting a ship that spent the better part of the season shoveling buckets of water from the hull. Instead, that ship is sinking quickly, and it may be too late to patch up the holes.

Troubling trend: Despite interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner saying the offense addressed its problems getting lined up after two illegal formation penalties against the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers were whistled for it yet again against the Patriots. This time, the penalty came when tackle Chuks Okorafor came on the field as an extra lineman and failed to cover up a tackle. And then facing first-and-goal from the 8-yard-line early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had to burn a timeout because of confusion in getting lined up. The Steelers offense has had an undeniably tumultuous stretch with the unprecedented in-season coordinator firing and an injury to their starting quarterback, but the struggle to get lined up shouldn’t be continuing to happen in Week 14.

Troubling trend II: For the second week in a row, the Steelers went down by three scores to a team that entered the game with just two wins. After trailing the Arizona Cardinals by as many as 21 points on Sunday, the Steelers trailed the Patriots by 18 midway through the second quarter Thursday night after Hunter Henry‘s second receiving touchdown. It marked the first time since 2013 the Steelers have trailed by at least 18 in consecutive games — and the first time under Mike Tomlin they’ve trailed by that many in consecutive home games, according to ESPN Stats and Info.

Troubling trend III: Homecoming game curse. Tomlin likes to remind his players there are no homecoming games in the NFL — meaning no game is a guaranteed win against a cupcake team. But against the Steelers in the last two weeks, opponents have had success in homecoming games of a different kind. A week after former Steelers running back James Conner had his best game of the season with 105 yards and two touchdowns, former receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers’ 2017 second-round pick, hit season-high marks in the first half. Smith-Schuster racked up 82 yards on three catches — including a first-drive snag for 37 yards that set up for the Patriots’ first opening-drive touchdown in 13 games. It also marked the Patriots’ first completion of at least 30 air yards this season.

Silver lining: Elandon Roberts is really that guy. In a season where the Steelers lost two of their three key inside linebackers in back-to-back weeks, Roberts remains a resilient force in the middle of the field. Though he left Sunday’s game with a groin injury and didn’t practice all week, Roberts not only started Thursday night, he also came up with a crucial third-quarter 10-yard sack and a pass breakup that turned into a Mykal Walker interception. The offense couldn’t turn the play into any points, but Roberts showed the kind of toughness the Steelers covet in an inside linebacker.

Pivotal play: S Miles Killebrew made a perfectly timed dive to block a Patriots punt early in the fourth quarter, giving the Steelers a short field on the ensuing drive. Starting at the 26, the Steelers finally found the end zone four plays later to pull within a field goal. — Brooke Pryor

Next game: at Colts (4:30 p.m. ET, Saturday, Dec. 16)

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