Now they're in trouble.
A week after setting themselves up nicely for the stretch run with a convincing win in Miami, the Patriots find themselves in a precarious position with four games remaining following a dismal performance in a 33-10 loss to Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The Patriots wasted an opportunity to tie the New York Jets for first place in the AFC East and also fell a full game behind Baltimore and Indianapolis in the wild-card race -- not to mention the fact they'd lose tiebreakers to both teams if they ended with the same record, which means they actually need to pass them, not pull even, over the final month of the season.
"We can't continue to play the way we do and lose, and expect the playoffs to just be handed to us," cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "It's a competitive league this year. Guys are winning. The ones falling to the wayside are going to be at home for New Year's and everything else. We definitely have to pick it up."
What they need to do is cut down on the mistakes. The Patriots turned the ball over five times against the Steelers' top-ranked defense, including an ugly sequence on a kickoff in which Matthew Slater fumbled the ball and lost it inside the 20-yard line, setting up an easy score for Pittsburgh.
After surpassing the 400-yard mark in back-to-back games (only the fifth quarterback in NFL history to do so), Matt Cassel got a reality check against the Steelers. They sacked him five times, forced two fumbles and also came away with two interceptions in Sundays' rout at Gillette Stadium.
"We had a great opportunity (Sunday)," offensive lineman Logan Mankins said. "The Jets lost. We would have been in first. We blew a big one (Sunday). As the season goes on, each one gets bigger and bigger. It's going to be another big week."
The Patriots went 1-for-13 on third down.
"You can't win games like that," wide receiver Jabar Gaffney said. "You have to pick up third downs and keep the ball, and we didn't do a good job of that."
Up next for the Patriots is another trip out West in which they play the Seahawks and Raiders in back-to-back weeks. The grind of staying out West for a week back in October resulted in a 1-1 trip, which included a win over San Francisco and a loss to San Diego. At this point, the Patriots can't afford anything other than a sweep, or else their playoff hopes could further diminish before they land back on the East Coast.
"That's what's in front of us now," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "There are four games left. I say that, but I hope we all just look at it as one game, win that, and then prepare to win the next one. We've always done a good job of putting big wins and losses behind us."
|Slater's fumble came at a crucial point for New England. (AP Photo)|
Slater In The Doghouse?
S Matthew Slater may not be getting many more chances on kickoff returns this season after botching a rare opportunity Sunday against Pittsburgh. With Ellis Hobbs sitting out the series due to cramps, Slater came in and muffed a kickoff deep inside New England territory, resulting in an easy touchdown for the Steelers.
Slater also botched his first NFL opportunity in the season opener against Kansas City. This is a big blow to his chance of remaining on the roster, as his specialty was supposed to be his speed on kick returns.
"It's frustrating," Slater said. "I feel like I cost my team the game."
Air Attack Grounded
QB Matt Cassel came crashing back to Earth after outstanding performances against the Jets and Dolphins in back-to-back weeks. The 400-yard games seemed like ages ago Sunday, as Cassel got sacked five times, fumbled twice and threw a pair of interceptions while facing an elite defense.
He finished 19-for-39 and threw for a measly 169 yards with no touchdowns.
"As a quarterback, you have to take care of the ball," Cassel said. "That's your first priority. For the game plan we had, we had a good idea of what they'd do and how they'd attack us. Mostly that played out the way we thought. Until I see it on film and really am able to analyze it, I couldn't tell you, 'Oh, well, I was still going through my read,' or 'I held the ball too long.'"
Losing His Touch?
WR Randy Moss didn't help much either. The Pro Bowl receiver, who set an NFL record last year with 23 touchdowns, dropped two easy passes Sunday and looked disinterested at times as the game spiraled out of control.
"Speaking for myself, I'm very disappointed in my play," Moss said. "(Coach) Bill (Belichick) says time and time again to do your job. As a wide receiver, your job is to get open, catch the ball and score touchdowns. I didn't have a good game, and I put a lot of the blame on myself. The team really looks to me to do my job week in and week out.
"I don't want to blame it on the rain or the weather. The balls were there and they weren't caught. It's something that is going to bother me until Sunday."
--CB Ellis Hobbs cramped up in the second half and was not on the field during a crucial sequence in which replacement Matthew Slater muffed a kickoff that resulted in a touchdown for Pittsburgh. Hobbs admits he was throwing up on the sidelines, but he should be fine for Sunday's game at Seattle.
--WR Wes Welker got knocked out of the game after taking a vicious hit over the middle from Pittsburgh's Ryan Clark, which elicited an unnecessary roughness penalty. Welker's condition is unknown.
--DE Ty Warren took a step back, missing Sunday's game with a groin injury -- his second missed game in three weeks. He played the previous week against Miami but was limited.
--Credit TE Ben Watson for another hustle play, chasing down Lawrence Timmons on an interception return to momentarily save a touchdown. The play brought back memories of a playoff game three years ago in which he chased down Champ Bailey with similar results.
--RB Kevin Faulk had a 41-yard carry Sunday, which was the third longest of his career and his longest since a 45-yard touchdown in 2002. Faulk continues to play a big role in New England's banged-up backfield.