It isn't so much that they lost. It isn't so much that they now trail the Steelers in the most important tie-breaker -- head-to-head matchup -- of the playoff dance that will begin three or four weeks hence.
It's that the Steelers exposed the Patriots defense so badly Sunday in their 25-17 victory that it's hard to fathom how New England can be taken seriously as a legitimate championship contender unless dramatic, and immediate, changes are made on that side of the ball.
"It is statistically impossible for this team to win a Super Bowl with a defense this bad," Cold Hard Football Facts' Kerry Byrne said last week, and that was BEFORE the Pats surrendered
427 total yards
29 first downs
Pittsburgh drives of 68, 72, 76, 52, 70, 63 and 41 yards, which helped the Steelers run 78 plays (to the Pats' 50) and enabled them to control the ball for 39 minutes and 22 seconds.
Yes, the Patriots (somehow) kept it close. Yes, they came within a flubbed onside kick of having possession of the ball with three timeouts and a chance to win in the final 2 12 minutes. No, there's no reason to fold the tents and declare the Pats' season to be over.
But the onside kick itself was as big an indictment of how the Patriots feel about their defense as anything could be. They had just scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 23-17, and there was still 2:40 to play. A team that trusted its defense would have kicked deep, counted on the defense to get a stop, and used its timeouts (combined with the two-minute warning) to get the ball back with a chance to win.
Instead, the Pats tried an onside kick. It failed -- Stephen Gostkowski tapped the top of the ball and it didn't travel the required 10 yards (plus the Patriots were offside, anyway) -- and the Steelers took possession. The Patriots did force them to punt, for the first time all day, with 28 seconds left, but it left Tom Brady and the offense needing a miracle . . . and what they got instead was a screwball play in which the ball squirted loose after a Brady sackfumble and resulted in a Pittsburgh safety for the final two points.
"Not our best day out there," sighed Brady.
The defense wasn't totally at fault; the offense was uneven, as well, failing to find a rhythm until the very end. Several times the Pats had the ball with a chance to tie, but for the first three-plus quarters they could never put together the type of long, time-consuming drives that might have turned the momentum.
"We just didn't execute very well on offense," said Brady. "Too many three-and-outs, a poor level of execution all around."
"We never really played the game on our terms," he added.
But the Steelers did. The onslaught started early: Pittsburgh went 68 yards in 11 plays with the opening kickoff and took a 7-0 lead on a five-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger (36-for-50, 365 yards, two touchdowns) to Mewelde Moore. The Pats went three-and-out on what turned out to be their only possession of the first quarter, and Shaun Suisham made it 10-0 with a 33-yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
The Patriot defense redeemed itself -- and put the Pats back in the game -- a bit later, when Gary Guyton picked off a Roethlisberger pass intended for Emmanuel Sanders at the Steelers 25 and returned it 17 yards to the 8. From there, Kevin Faulk took it to the 2 and then Brady hit Deion Branch on the left side of the end zone for a touchdown that cut the Steelers' lead to 10-7.
But that defensive good feeling was short-lived. Roethlisberger and Sanders hooked up for 26 yards on the first play on the ensuing drive and for 7 yards (and a touchdown) on the last, the bookends of a 10-play, 76-yard march that rebuilt their lead back to 10 points, 17-7.
A 46-yard field goal by Gostkowski with 29 seconds left sent the Pats into the half trailing by just 17-10, and they took the second-half kickoff with a chance to tie. But they had to punt, and another 70-yard march by the Steelers resulted in a 21-yard Suisham field goal and a 20-10 lead. After Gostkowski hit the right goalpost with a 42-yard field goal later in the quarter, the Steelers made it 23-10 when Suisham hit a 23-yard field goal with 11:26 left in the game.
Still, considering the way Roethlisberger and his receivers were shredding the outmanned Patriot secondary, the game seemed more one-sided than the score . . . and Brady and the Patriot offense nearly came back and stole it. A one-yard pass from Brady to Aaron Hernandez with 2:35 left to make it 23-17, but that came a minute-and-a-half after the referees incorrectly ruled Hernandez wasn't in the end zone when he caught a bullet pass from Brady. And the fact that there were only 2 12 minutes left after the TD, instead of 4, may have helped influenced the decision on the onside kick.
"I thought about challenging it, but there was no evidence," said Belichick, referring to the fact that CBS -- the game broadcast is watched by the assistant coaches in their box upstairs -- didn't show a replay until two more plays had been run, because the Pats were in a no-huddle offense and there was no time. "I certainly couldn't see it from my angle and they didn't replay it . . . so there was nothing to tell us whether he was in the end zone or not."
The Pats then tried the onside kick. Belichick, for his part, said it wasn't a reflection on the defense.
"We had confidence in the play," he said. "Thought we would execute it well, thought we had a good chance to get the ball. Obviously it didn't work out that way."
Very little did on an afternoon that dropped the Pats' record to 5-2, pushed them back into a first-place tie with Buffalo in the AFC East, and raised real concerns about their championship hopes.
"Just wasn't a real good day for us," said Belichick, "in any phase of the game, in any area."
That's for sure.