Let’s face it, these aren’t the Patriots we’re used to

Hmmm, what’s it like playing on Wild Card Weekend?

The New England Patriots right now have a very good chance of finding out.

It’s something they haven’t done in nine years.

They’ll very likely finish 11-5, and win the AFC East of course, but we’ve all had that feeling that this isn’t your typical Patriots team.

After coming up on the short end of Sunday’s 17-10 thriller in Pittsburgh, the Patriots dropped to the third seed, with the Houston Texans vaulting over them. Houston will take that spot if they beat Philly and Jacksonville in their final two games.

That’s the kind of season it’s been. New England finishes 3-5 on the road, and you wonder if receiver Julian Edelman had just shortened his rout a bit instead of winding up in the crowd at the goal line on the Patriots’ final play, perhaps overtime would have taken place at Heinz Field.

The Patriots of the past would’ve taken this thing right away from the Steelers, who, as usual, had their arms out to hand it to them. Instead, they said “No thanks”, in the form of a Tom Brady red zone interception midway through the fourth quarter (his first since 2016, he said later he was trying to throw the ball away), and numerous penalties, and Brady passes sailing over the end zone in the last minute.

The Steelers didn’t score a touchdown in the second half, managed just three points, with receiver Antonio Brown a non-factor in that span, yet still came out on top.

But they handled things up front. The New England defense allowed back Jaylen Samuels to rush for 142 yards on 19 carries.

The Steelers had chances in the first half to widen the gap and take advantage of this being the first time in 81 games that the Patriots were blanked in a second quarter, and didn’t do it. They veered away from the run and when you put the ball too often in Roethlisberger’s hands these days, bad things could happen from the Pittsburgh perspective. Duron Harmon (two interceptions Sunday) knows that better than anyone.

Yet Roethlisberger, not Brady, was smiling at the end of the game when asked if this meant more than the usual late-season win.

“If you said know, you’d be lying a little bit,” told CBS sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson moments after it ended. “They’re (the Patriots) are the best for a reason. … So anytime you can beat em, you’ve got to take a little bit more out of it.”

It’s a different year. The Patriots don’t score a lot of points on the road, don’t have that same well-oiled offensive machine. The biggest sign: Rob Gronkowski, five targets, but just two catches for 21 yards Sunday. James White, just 25 yards in the air and 12 on the ground. As Brady said of the team’s struggles, “We all feel it.”

It’s been a pretty good weekend for the NFL. The true AFC Super Bowl contenders, L.A. And Kansas City, played a classic on Thursday night. Both Saturday games came down to the wire, Houston’s win over the Jets and the Browns’ win at Denver. And Sunday’s Steeler-Patriot thriller, which even Belichick admitted afterward in the televised press conference, “It was a good one.”

The thing is, neither team looks like a Super Bowl contender, not like last year.

The Patriots now finish 3-5 on the road, but they know they should have won the final two. Miami Mayhem and late Heinz Field Futility.

“We certainly had some opportunities out there,” Brady said.

It’s just a different year. Earlier in the day Sunday, Patriots safety Devin McCourty reportedly had bold words when asked a question by the NFL Network.

“We’re the Patriots,” he was reported to have said. “We don’t lose in December.”

This year, they do. And could very well in January, too.

“We’ve got a lot of football ahead,” Brady said.

But you have to wonder just how much. They may be busy Wild Card Weekend after all.

Tom King can be reached at 594-1251,tking@nashuatelegraph.com, or@Telegraph _TomK.