Monday, December 1, 2008

Rain pain

Just when you think they're back among the AFC elite, the 2008 New England Patriots consistently return your expectations to Earth.

Riding high after a high-energy victory in Miami, the Patriots returned home to face frigid, drenching rain and the NFL's best defense, factors that didn't bode well in a 33-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After a game in South Florida in which seemingly everything went right, nothing did in Foxboro. In the second half, anyway. In the first half, New England, despite key drops from the ultra-reliable Randy Moss (one for a sure touchdown with seconds remaining until halftime) and a botched chip shot field goal from the even-more-reliable Stephen Gostkowski, was tied with the Steelers, 10-10. Furthermore, they were generating more offensive chances than Pittsburgh and had the ball to start the second half.

It didn't matter, as the Pats regressed at an alarming rate. Fumble on the kickoff. Pittsburgh field goal. Fumble by Cassel. Pittsburgh touchdown. Another fumble by Cassel. Pittsburgh field goal. Interception by Cassel. Suddenly, a game that New England was verging on putting away before halftime was a laugher in all the wrong ways.

New England resembled a heavyweight contender keeping pace through eight tough rounds in the heavyweight championship, then getting floored on the first punch of the ninth. New England was a drop by Moss away from making a statement. They ended up three scores behind the opportunistic Steelers, and a lot further from being a realistic AFC playoff contender.

It's a mistake to count the Patriots out of the playoffs. They have four winnable games coming up, while Baltimore (in possession of the second wild card spot) has to play this same scary Steelers team again, as well as the Redskins and Cowboys. If the Patriots win out, they'll finish 11-5. That should be good enough to play in January.

But who knows how well? On Sunday, Patriots fans saw an offense that compiled over 1,000 yards the past two games fail to catch and hold on to the football, and a defense playing against an O.K. Steelers offense in drenching rain somehow allow 33 points. These factors can't be ignored. For the Patriots to make an impression in the playoffs, they'll have to live with them.

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