More than 24 hours later, I'm still not quite sure what to write about that game.
At first it seemed like it would be another New England-Pittsburgh heavyweight battle on defense, with the score tied 10-10 after a first half that saw thrills and spills in the driving Foxboro downpour. The highlight of the game for me at that point was Mike Vrabel's interception early in the first quarter, deep in Steelers territory, which led directly to a touchdown for the Patriots moments later.
The Steelers were then held to a field goal, and another New England field goal made it 10-3, Patriots, just in time for me to start thinking about how before my very eyes they were returning to an older form, one that paired wily defense and adequate, determined offense with a smart, balanced game plan tailored to each opponent from week to week. In particular that interception from Vrabel felt like a tantalizing taste of the dynasty heyday.
In the second quarter, a scintillating 41-yard run by Kevin Faulk against the top rushing defense in the league and another 14 yard gain by Morris put the Patriots in the red zone.
And that's about when things started to go terribly wrong.
Randy Moss, he of the flypaper hands, dropped the ball in the end zone not once, not twice, but thrice, once when it would've been a deflected near-pick through the hands of a Steelers receiver that fell directly into his lap, and he couldn't hang on.
Reduced to a field goal, the Patriots lined up to collect their three points, and that's when the kicker that's had us saying 'Adam who?' missed the crucial kick, wide right.
Then the second half happened.
What had been a few blunders, maybe mental errors or the slipperiness of the ball in the rain at the end of the first half gave way to a 30-minute period of football that is undoubtedly the worst display from the Patriots at least since their 2005 loss to the Broncos in the playoffs (the last time they had 5 turnovers), and maybe, before that, since the 31-0 opening-day loss to Buffalo in 2004.
"Ugly" doesn't do it justice. By the end of this game, the Patriots offense had converted a grand total of ONE third down. There have been other games, even lost by as wide a margin as this, where you could point to one or the other formation or play by the opponent that bolloxed up the Patriots' game plan, or a few key moments where the breaks didn't go the Pats' way. This kind of analysis might apply to the first half, but the second? Was simply not the Patriots football I've been watching for the last five years--or even most of the last five months.
Mental mistakes. The Patriots fell behind, then played like they were behind. Attempts to force success only led to more turnovers, and the collective implosion snowballed on itself. My kingdom for a pep talk from a cool No 12 at that moment.
But it can't be that simple, can it? Brady wasn't the only leader on the team. Of course, the team is missing other leaders on both sides of the ball, too, guys like Rodney Harrison, Adalius Thomas and Ty Warren. Yet they were missing those guys when they beat Miami and played a barn-burner against the Jets. Were the Steelers just the level of opponent that finally brought out those absences in glaring relief?
Even then, there's a psychological element to this implosion (that's the only word I can think of that really describe it) that is not something I expected to see even on the worst day from a Belichick team, especially not this Belichick team, one that had showed resilience this year despite injuries and some tough losses.
And surely--SURELY--you can't expect me, a New England Patriots fan, to factor in the weather. Especially since the other guys were playing in the rain, too, and managed not to run around like a bunch of headless chickens.
When the Pats lost to San Diego and the Colts, I allowed the thought that while they've beeen able to overcome the holes in the lineup and cover up the inexperience against fair-to-middling opponents, it may be time to admit we are seeing a pattern emerging where the 2008 Patriots can't hang with the top echelons of the AFC anymore, can't step up to those matchups we used to relish, with the likes of Pittsburgh and Indy. But it seems like whenever I've come to that point of writing them off, the Patriots have surprised me by bouncing back for the next game.
So now it's time to wait and see. I hope it was just a really bad day. I hope that nagging 'can't hang' sense turns out to be wrong.