Patriots conquer offensive challenges, clinch road win over Steelers

Photo of Patriots wins over Steelers.

In Pittsburgh, the New England Patriots displayed resilience in securing a hard-fought 21-18 victory over the Steelers, with little on the line except pride. Broadcasted to a national audience, the Patriots communicated that their struggle this season hasn’t been about effort but rather execution.

They demonstrated the capacity to make decisive plays when needed, relying on their staunch defense to clinch the win in the second half after establishing a 21-10 lead in the initial period. A crucial contribution came from veteran cornerback Jonathan Jones, who provided tight coverage during a pivotal fourth-down attempt by the Steelers. Here are the main insights for both teams emerging from the Thursday night result:

New England Patriots

In two words: Zappe brilliance. Bailey Zappe, who transitioned from backup to starter, delivered the Patriots’ most remarkable quarterback performance this season, becoming the first New England player to throw three touchdowns in the first half since Tom Brady in 2018.

Decisive moment: Zappe’s 37-yard pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster on the third offensive play. This marked the Patriots’ initial completion of 30-plus air yards this season, highlighting their newfound willingness to attack down the field. Kickstarting a breakout performance, Part I: On his 29th birthday, tight end Hunter Henry celebrated with two touchdowns. A steadfast presence amid a challenging season for the team, this served as a well-deserved reward.

Henry became the first Patriot to score a birthday touchdown since running back Dion Lewis on Sept. 27, 2015 (who did so on his 25th birthday). Additionally, Henry joined an exclusive group of players over the past 30 seasons with two receiving touchdowns on their birthday, alongside DeVonta Smith (2021 vs. Broncos), Jimmy Graham (2014 vs. Ravens), Terrell Owens (2003 vs. Cardinals), and Isaac Bruce (2002 vs. Chargers).

Significant development: The Patriots commenced the evening occupying the second spot in the draft order, trailing the Bears (via Carolina). Nevertheless, their victory, elevating their record to 3-10, has now positioned them alongside the Cardinals.

Continuing the storyline of an emerging standout performance, Part II: Seasoned running back Ezekiel Elliott, assuming the role in place of the injured Rhamondre Stevenson, assumed a crucial position. Functioning as a dual threat both in rushing and receiving, Elliott remained a constant presence on the field and displayed remarkable determination, making a pivotal tackle during a Zappe interception. — Mike Reiss. Next scheduled match: vs. Chiefs (1 p.m. ET, Sunday, Dec. 17)

Pittsburgh Steelers

In under a week, the Steelers seemed on track for a postseason appearance, either as the AFC North leader or a formidable wild-card contender. Despite an imperfect offense, the team seemed to be establishing a rhythm, complemented by a solid defense. However, following a second consecutive loss to one of the league’s struggling teams, the Steelers’ prospects now appear far less optimistic.

Against the team ranked at the bottom in points per game, the defense conceded 21 points. On the offensive front, backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky and his team encountered challenges against Bill Belichick’s relentless defense, resulting in a disjointed effort with only 264 total yards.

Despite narrowing the gap to a field goal early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers’ offense failed to position itself for kicker Chris Boswell to reduce the margin, despite Boswell’s earlier successful 56-yard field goal in the first quarter.

After the loss to the Arizona Cardinals, some Steelers acknowledged underestimating the then-two-win team and vowed not to repeat the oversight. However, midway through the second quarter against the Patriots, the Steelers found themselves trailing 21-3, prompting questions about whether they went back on their commitment or, even worse, were unable to fulfill it.

Fresh from a commendable, albeit not entirely convincing, victory against the Cincinnati Bengals and facing a favorable schedule in the season’s concluding month, the Steelers appeared ready to address the challenges that plagued their season. However, rather than witnessing a turnaround, the team now finds itself rapidly descending, with the opportunity to mend metaphorical holes possibly slipping away.

A troubling pattern emerges: Despite assurances from interim offensive coordinator Eddie Faulkner that the offense had resolved issues related to illegal formation penalties following the game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers incurred a similar penalty against the Patriots. On this occasion, the infraction occurred when tackle Chuks Okorafor entered the field as an additional lineman but failed to adequately cover up a tackle.

Compounding the problems, with a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had to burn a timeout due to confusion in getting properly aligned. While the offense has navigated an unprecedented stretch, dealing with an in-season coordinator firing and the starting quarterback’s injury, the persistent struggle to get properly organized is perplexing in Week 14.

An unsettling trend continues: For the second consecutive week, the Steelers found themselves trailing by three scores against a team entering the game with only two wins. Following a deficit of as much as 21 points against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, the Steelers were behind the Patriots by 18 midway through the second quarter on Thursday night, following Hunter Henry’s second receiving touchdown.

This marks the first instance since 2013 that the Steelers have trailed by at least 18 points in consecutive games and, under Mike Tomlin, the first time they’ve faced such a deficit in consecutive home games, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

A recurring theme endures: Coach Tomlin consistently emphasizes to his players that there are no guaranteed wins, underscoring the absence of “homecoming games” in the NFL. However, in the past two weeks, opponents facing the Steelers have transformed their matchups into a form of homecoming success.

Following James Conner’s standout performance the previous week, former Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team’s 2017 second-round pick, achieved season-high numbers in the first half. Smith-Schuster amassed 82 yards on three catches, including a pivotal 37-yard reception that set the stage for the Patriots’ first opening-drive touchdown in 13 games. Notably, it also marked the Patriots’ initial completion of at least 30 air yards this season.

Silver lining: Elandon Roberts exemplifies resilience. In a season marred by the Steelers losing two crucial inside linebackers in consecutive weeks, Roberts emerges as a steadfast presence in the heart of the field.

Despite exiting Sunday’s game with a groin injury and remaining absent from practice throughout the week, Roberts not only started on Thursday night but also delivered a pivotal 10-yard sack in the third quarter and a pass breakup that resulted in a Mykal Walker interception.

Although the offense couldn’t convert the play into points, Roberts displayed the type of toughness highly valued by the Steelers in an inside linebacker.

Crucial moment: Safety Miles Killebrew executed a precisely timed dive to block a Patriots punt early in the fourth quarter, granting the Steelers favorable field position on the ensuing drive. Commencing at the 26-yard line, the Steelers ultimately reached the end zone four plays later, narrowing the deficit to a field goal. — Brooke Pryor

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


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