Now really, Patriots fans, after Tom Brady blew his ACL, didn't 7-5 through 12 games seem optimistic?
Thought so. But in the euphoria of Matt Cassel's two straight 400-yard passing games and the big win at Miami last week, we all started believing this injury-riddled team with a secondary that could be generously labeled mediocre might be a playoff team.
That illusion was washed away in a monsoon of second-half turnovers and mistakes on a damp November evening in Foxboro.
The early Patriot touchdown on a short field after Mike Vrabel's interception only built a bigger illusion. From about the middle of the second quarter on, the Steelers exposed this team as a pretender.
If the Pats had won, at 8-4, they still wouldn't be in the playoffs if the season ended tonight. Now, they're entirely depending on a four-game winning streak and the kindness of other contenders (should I really hold my breath waiting for the Jets to hack up another hairball like they did today against Denver?). Sure, they can sweep Seattle and Oakland on the West Coast trip, but that's like putting lipstick on the governor of Alaska. Even if Arizona and Buffalo offer up weak efforts like they did this week, those wins wouldn't prove a lot.
Ty Warren's absence took something out of the pass rush, and Ben Roethlisberger helped himself right downfield to tie the game with less than two minutes in the half. Once again, this defense could not get off the field on third and long (the Steelers did a better job stopping themselves with dropped passes than the Patriot D did).
Nice rally back downfield, with Kevin Faulk's 41-yard run the New England offensive highlight of the day. But then the old red zone monster bit again, and Stephen Gostkowski, for the first time in his three-year NFL career, blew a chip shot that would've sent the Pats to the locker room ahead. But if anything, the Pats' second-half ineptitude left Stevie G off the hook.
A sack on the opening drive of the second half denied Gostkowski the chance to atone for his mistake, and it went downhill from there. Cassel's protection broke down completely, and he got separated from the ball twice by the Pittsburgh rush. Matthew Slater stonefingered a kickoff, handing Pittsburgh seven points. Cassel finally forced what would've been a pick-6 if Lawrence Timmons hadn't run out of gas one yard from the end zone.
This was the kind of arse-kicking the Pats handed Pittsburgh late last season. The Steelers haven't always played like this at Heinz Field this season, but this was the kind of road show they put on at Washington, and the Patriots didn't have any more answers than the Redskins did. And through 12 games, the Pittsburgh defense has still not allowed an opposing offense to gain 300 yards. It sure didn't feel like the Pats gained even 267 yards.
Maybe the injuries finally caught up. Maybe there wasn't enough work done on the defense. The needle on defensive coordinator Dean Pees' job security is dropping, and Dom Capers hasn't delivered on the secondary makeover. Wherever you point the finger, the reality is this: the 2008 Patriots may be a slightly over .500 team, but they're not a playoff team. This year, 10-6 won't cut it. No guarantee that 11-5 will, either.
The AFC's nouveau riche, the Jets and Titans, are being nudged aside by the old guard, the Steelers and Colts, as the air grows chilly and the sky darkens. But some of the old guard will be missing when the playoffs begin in January. It's looking like last year's conference title game participants, the Patriots and Chargers, will both be watching it all on TV.