New England Patriots

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 16: Joe Haden of the Pittsburgh Steelers intercepts a pass intended for Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter during the game at Heinz Field on December 16, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH, PA – DECEMBER 16: Joe Haden of the Pittsburgh Steelers intercepts a pass intended for Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots in the fourth quarter during the game at Heinz Field on December 16, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com

Players have said it week after week. The Patriots need to play better on the road. They need to cut out the penalties. They need to get off to a better start. They need to stay mentally tough and play well consistently for four quarters.

Well, none of that happened on Sunday at Heinz Field, as the Patriots kicked off in Pittsburgh needing a win to stay in the No. 2 seed in the AFC. Now they’re left chasing the 10-4 Houston Texans after falling to 9-5 in a frustrating 17-10 loss, and this one falls mostly on the shoulders of the offense. Particularly, the wide variety of ways the offense found ways to go backwards and leave points on the field.

In some cases, plays were there to be made. Unfortunately, that’s when the Patriots’ receivers picked inopportune times to be unable to hold on to the football. Julian Edelman, in perhaps his worst game of the season, had two clear drops. One came late in the first quarter with a chance to move the chains. The second came with a chance to get the Patriots well into Pittsburgh territory late in the first half. James White dropped a third-down opportunity on a ball thrown slightly behind him. Josh Gordon let a third-and-6 opportunity slip out of his hands.

Third down, by the way. Another reason for the Patriots’ offensive ineptitude on Sunday. Just 3-for-10 in that department, making the Steelers’ 4-for-9 in those situations look like a well-oiled machine.

Brady wasn’t necessarily the “problem” for the Patriots offense in Pittsburgh. Which may make you feel better or worse about this group depending on your perspective. But Brady made arguably the single worst play of the day for the Pats when he heaved the ball up for grabs in an attempt to throw it out of bounds under pressure. The ball stayed in bounds, and Steelers cornerback Joe Haden was able to keep his feet in as he leaped and hauled it in for a crucial interception.

Brady admitted after the game that he was trying to throw the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack. So the decision wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed at first, but the execution couldn’t have been worse. The interception wiped out any possible points after the Patriots had first-and-goal from the 5-yard line just two plays earlier. A holding penalty promptly dropped them out of easy touchdown range two snaps before the pick.

That was the true headliner, by the way, Those damn penalties. Ten of their 14 flags went against the offense for a total of 60 yards. Like other recent outings against the Jets and Vikings, the offense committed much of its violations pre-snap. David Andrews was the only Patriots offensive lineman not to get flagged for a false start or holding. Trent Brown committed two penalties himself.

The penalties weren’t all justifiable calls, but the legit ones were severely untimely. Four of them came from within the Pittsburgh 15-yard line.

“Obviously penalties and the red area were pretty much the difference in the game,” said head coach Bill Belichick. “We need to do a better job there.”

Clearly, for whatever reason, the Patriots offense isn’t showing the same kind of discipline or mental toughness that fans are used to seeing. That especially shows up on the road. It’s certainly what killed them in Pittsburgh.

“We just have to do a better job,” said Brady after the game. “Certainly all of us feel it. It’s not any one thing. It’s a lot of things collectively.

“Not going to make any excuses. We’ve just got to do a better job, and there’s only one way to do a better job, and that’s to learn from it and correct it and go out there on the practice field and work harder at it, and go out and execute it better next weekend.”

Unfortunately, now that they’ve finished the season with a 3-5 record away from Gillette Stadium, their sloppiness and inconsistency in those games were problems that they never really turned around.

They’ve run out of time to turn it around before the playoffs. So if and when they end up playing on the road in January, it’s hard to feel confident that it’ll look any different from how it looked in Pittsburgh.

Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at matthew.dolloff@bbgi.com.