By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 30, 2008

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FOXBOROUGH -- Too hurt. Too many mistakes. Too unforgiving an opponent.

And still another conference loss to boot.

The rain fell all game long on Sunday at Gillette Stadium, and with it the last vestiges of any playoff chance may have gone by the board. The Patriots, who would most likely have to win the division to have any shot at the playoffs, looked anything like the Patriot team which beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-13 last year. This year's Steelers team is 9-3, the best overall defense in the league, and the visitors came in and laid a 33-10 whipping on the defending conference champs.

With both Indianapolis and Baltimore winning, the Patriots might be unable to overcome either team and claim a wild card berth. With the Jets losing to Denver, the Patriots blew a golden opportunity to pull even in the division. The Patriots have four winnable games left on their schedule, but given their injury situation and their porous pass defense, they cannot be counted on to win all four of those games like they might have been in past years.

If the Patriots do win out, their playoff chances are still very slim but still very possible. The Colts should run the table fairly easily with Cincinnati, Detroit and Jacksonville left to play. If Baltimore loses at home to Pittsburgh and on the road to Dallas, that could open a narrow door for the Patriots. The Jets have four winnable games left like the Patriots, but the Patriots would need the Jets to be upset at home to either Buffalo and/or Miami to make the division title more within reach.

If the Patriots play any of their remaining games like they did on Sunday against Pittsburgh, then it's time to rediscover the Bruins and to see if Paul Pierce can do something Larry Bird and Dave Cowens never did, that being to win two straight NBA titles.

The Patriots suffered three lost fumbles, Matt Cassel threw two interceptions, the Patriots were penalized 6 times for 45 yards. Randy Moss had three key drops, two of which cost the Patriots a touchdown when the home team was still in command. Matt Light suffered two horrid blocking breakdowns, both of which resulted in strip sacks by James Harrison. Wes Welker was blasted by Ryan Clark on a vicious hit in the third quarter. Mewelde Moore, filling in for the injured Willie Parker, looked like Jerome Bettis and caused severe tackling problems for the Patriots.

Other than that, things went well for the Patriots.

At one time the Patriots held a 10-3 lead, and broke out of the starting blocks like they would win big. On their fourth play of the game, Mike Vrabel intercepted Ben Roethlisberger, and three plays later Sammy Morris ran it in from two yards out to make it 7-0 Patriots quickly. The rainy weather looked like it would put a damper on the passing game, and the Patriots seizing a lead early seemed to forebode good things.

Yet from that point on, the Patriot offense never got untracked. While Cassel looked very un-Brady-like all game long, he cannot be faulted for most of what went wrong. Cassel did get careless with checking his back side and he did misfire on occasion, but the Patriots simply made too many mistakes to give them any chance at all to win this game. Too many dropped passes were the chief culprit, with lack of execution in the red area being the second biggest culprit.

The second offensive possession ended quickly thanks to a sack of Cassel by James Farrior and Aaron Smith. The next possession was thwarted thanks to a play which may haunt Moss all season long. Running a deep crossing pattern, Cassel hit him perfectly for about 30 yards. But Moss allowed the ball to clank off his facemask and the ball bounded harmlessly away.

Into the second quarter, Cassel killed off the next drive thanks to a delay of game penalty, something you never see Tom Brady do. The Patriots were able to run two long sustained drives for the rest of the first half, but were only able to garner three points for their trouble. The Patriots drove from their own 40 to the Steeler 12 before a furious rush by Cassel's former USC roommate Troy Polamalu and a batted down pass by LaMarr Woodley forced the Patriots to settle for a 29-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

It was the next drive which pretty much foretold doom for the Patriots. Having just allowed the game-tying touchdown when Roethlisberger put a beautiful pump fake on Deltha O'Neal and hit Santonio Holmes with a 19-yard scoring toss, the Patriots drove from their 27 to the Steeler 9 thanks to a nifty 41-yard run out of a draw by Kevin Faulk and a 14-yard draw play by Morris where a hole the size of Heinz Field was opened up on the right side of the line of scrimmage. But three incompletions followed, the first two of them were drops in the end zone by Moss. The third was a drop by Ike Taylor who should have had an interception. On fourth down, Gostkowski came in for a 27-yard field goal attempt, but pushed it wide right. It was 10-10 at the half but it felt like 30-10 Steelers.

The Steelers have the best defense in the league and it showed, but the Patriots allowed them to dominate thanks to the five turnovers. A sack by Casey Hampton killed the first Patriot drive, the Steelers answered with a 25-yard field goal by Reed to give the Pittsburghers their first lead, then the turnovers came rather suddenly. Matthew Slater fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Keyaron Fox recovered at the Patriot 8, and two plays later Roethlisberger found Hines Ward from 11 yards out to make it 20-10 Steelers.

On the next offensive play for the Patriots, Harrison blasted right by Light and jarred the ball loose from Cassel at the Patriot 26. Woodley recovered, but the Patriots only surrendered a 20-yard field goal by Reed. Six plays into their next drive, Harrison once again beat Light and caused another Cassel fumble, this time recovered by Farrior. The Patriots still had life in the fourth quarter, as this turnover didn't hurt them when Reed pushed a 40-yard field goal attempt wide left.

Six plays into their next drive, Cassel tried to hit Ben Watson on a deep slant route. The ball tipped off his fingertips and into the hands of Polamalu. This would lead to a field goal by Reed from 45 yards out to basically put the game out of reach. For good measure, Lawrence Timmons hauled in an interception with 3:47 left in the game, and chugged 89 yards before Watson (remember, this guy once ran down Champ Bailey) ran him down at the one. Two plays later, Gary Russell blasted in from a yard out to complete the scoring.

Other than the turnovers, neither side put up glittering numbers. But the Patriots were done in by those turnovers, and against a great defense like Pittsburgh's, the result was predictable.

The Patriots need to regroup, win out and rely on some help. Maybe the Jets and Ravens can stumble before they reach the finish line. If not, the Patriots may be playing the rest of the season to set up next year, and to right their wounded ship and get things back to normal. In this most unusual year, the Patriots have never quit, and up until this game with the Steelers, had generally exceeded most everyone's expectations.

Or perhaps the Patriots do have some January ball left in them. If so, they will see something like what they saw on Sunday again, and they had better be ready for it.


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