logoSearching through the rain for something positive to say about New England’s 33-10 debacle vs. the Steelers, I came up with one small tidbit: they’re still in the playoff hunt. Sort of.

Sunday’s shame lies in the fact that a couple hundred miles south, the Jets were getting tossed around by the Broncos. Had the Patriots figured out a way to win, they would be tied at 8-4 atop the division (albeit with the Jets winning the tiebreaker). As it stands now, the Pats and Dolphins sit together in second place at 7-5.

Though the ball of yarn unraveled in the third quarter, when Pittsburgh scored 13 points while shutting out the home team to take a 23-10 lead, it first came loose late in the second, when the Patriots missed a key opportunity to score.

A 41-yard draw play to Kevin Faulk and a 14-yarder by Sammy Morris helped put the Patriots on the Steelers’ nine-yard line with 35 seconds left. When quarterback Matt Cassel threw a little bit behind a wide-open Randy Moss in the back of the end zone, Moss let the ball and the score slip through his fingers. Stephen Gostkowski missed the 27-yard field goal attempt, keeping the score tied going into the break.

New England got the ball to begin the third and moved into Steeler territory with help from two penalties. On second and one, Cassel got sacked, killing the home team’s momentum and setting the stage for a blooper bonanza reminiscent of early 1990s Patriots. For those few minutes of playing time, that’s not an overstatement.

The Steelers held the ball for 6:53, taking 14 plays to get to the seven-yard line. There, after a couple of incomplete passes where Ben Roethlisberger had enough time in the pocket to boil an egg (the plays took nine and ten seconds, respectively), Pittsburgh settled for a field goal.

Down 13-10, New England looked to get the ball back and at least tie things up, but increasingly useless rookie Matt Slater performed his own personal football follies, muffing the kickoff and accidentally booting it into the arms of the onrushing Steelers at the eight. On second down, Roethlisberger tossed to Hines Ward for a touchdown. Cornerback Deltha O’Neal may have been in the same zip code on the play.

With New England trailing by two scores and the rain harsh enough to get Noah on speed dial, the home team needed to put the ball in the end zone. Instead, they put it on the ground. Speed rusher James Harrison flew around tackle Matt Light like a fly zipping past a horse’s behind and swatted the ball out of Cassel’s hands. Pittsburgh recovered at the 26 and kicked another field goal to make it 26-10. Harrison would duplicate the feat two minutes later, knocking the ball loose on his second sack of the day at New England’s 47. Pittsburgh took it away five times (three fumbles, two interceptions), all in the second half. 

Cassel had a day as miserable as the weather (four turnovers, 19 of 39 passing). His receivers can take some of the blame. Besides Moss’ miss in the end zone, Welker, Jabar Gaffney and Benjamin Watson all failed to come up with catchable passes. Cassel’s bullet to Watson on third and 13 with 9:32 left in the game bounced off the tight end’s hands and ended up in Troy Polamalu’s. Pittsburgh scored a field goal on the following drive. With 5:39 left, Cassel passed down the left sideline; though it was underthrown, it hit the sliding Gaffney in the numbers. Pittsburgh helped out with an unsportmanlike penalty, but the drive ended when Cassel threw his second interception to Lawrence Timmons, who returned it 89 yards to the one. Gary Russell ran it in for the final, humiliating score.

And to think how well this one began. Mike Vrabel picked off Roethlisberger at the line of scrimmage, giving the Patriots the ball at Pitt’s 14. Welker made a catch across the middle and scooted to the two. Morris pounded it in for an early 7-0 lead. It would have been tough to predict that New England wouldn’t get into the end zone again, but there you go.

This team reminds me of my senior year in high school (I know, I know: bear with me). We’d had the same starting quarterback and running back for three full years. When they graduated, we didn’t really know what to do. We had games when we would look around at each other, hoping that someone would be able to step up and make a difference.

So who’s going to do that for New England?

Cassel can and should do better. After two 400-yard efforts, he seemed out of sync with his receivers and o-line. Much of that had to do with Pittsburgh’s defense. The Patriots did a pretty good job running the ball (Faulk had 73 yards on six carries, Morris 45 on 10) but had to abandon the rushing game by the third quarter.

Here’s a not-so-fun fact about the Patriots’ D: they have given up a score the last 36 times their opponents have reached the red zone. Take a second to ponder that, especially when considering the past reputation of New England’s “bend-don’t-break” squads. Nowadays, getting inside the Patriots’ 20 means getting points. No missed field goals. No sacks or penalties that put them out of range. No tipped balls that lead to interceptions. No fumbles. Nada. Kind of incredible, really.

In terms of standings, the Patriots find themselves tied with Miami, one game behind Baltimore and Indianapolis for wildcard spots. Baltimore still has Pittsburgh and Dallas on their schedule, while the Colts have Jacksonville and Tennessee (although that’s the last game of the season, and the Titans will have clinched by then. Damnit). New England can still do it, though this season is shaping into 2002, the 9-7 year when their playoff fate was taken out of their hands.

As we approach the holiday season, I present my wish list for New England:

Win out: This is doable, though in the crazy NFL year of 2008, hardly a cakewalk. Seattle and Oakland have five wins combined. Buffalo seems to have lost any mojo they had at the beginning of the year. Arizona has the same record as New England, but they’ve gotten hammered the past couple of weeks. Of course, if the Patriots get outscored 23-0 in the second half again, my old high school team could beat them. (I just knew you were dying for another reference.)

Coverage, please: It would be nice to see the defensive backs knock a pass away once in a while that isn’t terribly underthrown. I had no idea how much this team would miss Asante Samuel. Maybe he would have gotten hurt (or shot himself in the leg. Can’t resist this.), but it’s amazing how soft the coverage has been. While the Pats defense used to pride themselves on getting their opponents into third-and-long situations, that doesn’t seem to faze anyone anymore. Pitt’s third-down efficiency this week was 50 percent (8/16), the same rate as Miami last week (6/12). By comparison, the Pats’ was seven percent this week (1/13), 37 percent last week (3/8).

Blitz bits: New England’s one sack came on a blitz by Ellis Hobbs, who shared the stat with Richard Seymour. While the Patriots front three do solid work collapsing the pocket, no one seems to win one-on-one battles in the same way that opposing teams do (Pittsburgh had five sacks). It’s turned into a conundrum where New England can’t cover receivers without pressure and they can’t pressure without blitzing, yet they can’t cover while blitzing, either. When opposing QBs have time to make their reads, the Patriots get killed. I’m still waiting for the kitchen-sink defense of Dom Capers. Time to take some chances.

Rookies galore:  Except for Slater. Come on, if you’re a returner who can’t return, what the heck are you? No, I’m looking at linebackers Jerod Mayo, Gary Guyton and Vince Redd and defensive back Jonathan Wilhite. If nothing else comes from this season, at least New England will have gotten their rookies some experience. So why not get Redd into some pass-rushing situations and see what he can do? Why not blitz Wilhite, or have him play a more aggressive man-to-man? Sure, these guys will get toasted once in a while, but is that really all that much worse than watching the defense they have out there now? Why am I asking so many questions in a row?

Be aggressive: Like the cheerleaders spell out every week, this New England team needs to take some chances and execute (although simply spelling out “aggressive” takes a lot less time to explain). This season will come down to who makes the most plays. When the Pats defend third and long, few fans expect O’Neal or Hobbs to knock down a pass, or Vrabel or Pierre Woods to get a sack, or James Sanders to intercept the ball. When the Pats go on offense, who knows what will happen: a well-executed run or a false start penalty, a pass completion or a drop?

Someone – a few someones – needs to step up for New England. Who those players might be, I have no idea, but at 7-5, each player on this team needs to stop looking around for the answer and try to provide it himself.

Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com.