THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

Relax, rest of the schedule not meaty

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 1, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Every so often we get these reminders that last year was last year and this year, well, ain't.

Miami 38, New England 13.

San Diego 30, New England 10.

And now . . . Pittsburgh 33, New England 10.

There's a top tier of teams in the National Football League, and the Patriots aren't in it. The Giants? Yup. The Titans? Yup. The Steelers? I'd say yes, absolutely. I don't reckon anyone's going to be looking forward to playing the Pittsburgh Steelers the rest of this season.

The Patriots are on a distinctly lower level, as we saw yesterday.

"Pittsburgh was a better team today," acknowledged coach Bill Belichick. "They beat us. They were a better team."

The miserable cold and rain had nothing to do with anything.

"End of November," sniffed Belichick.

"We're the Pittsburgh Steelers," pointed out Pittsburgh wide receiver extraordinaire Hines Ward.

"We play in this stuff every other weekend."

The Steelers were certainly the more careful team. Any sports fan who ever has been exposed to that remedial course "Professional Football, 101" knows that the chances of winning a game in this here league while turning the ball over five times are, um, minimal. You can't do that and survive. You just can't.

But we interrupt this dissemination of doom and gloom to interject a necessary thought into the heads of those who care about the fortunes of the Patriots. Providing someone hasn't had a totally unrealistic fan approach to this entirely Brady-less season, things aren't really all that dire. The Patriots aren't going to the Super Bowl, for sure, but they still have a chance of making the playoffs. They're going to need help, of course. But that help may be en route.

You ready? Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Denver, and the Jets are all in. They are the four AFC division leaders, and they are all likely to remain right where they are. That leaves three teams fighting for two AFC wild-card slots.

With their 10-6 victory over Cleveland yesterday (style points are, fortunately, irrelevant in this league), the Indianapolis Colts have advanced to 8-4 and are very likely looking at a minimum of an 11-5 season, given that their remaining schedule is as follows: Cincinnati, Detroit, at Jacksonville, and Tennessee. The Titans will be playing for nothing that final day. I might even concede Indy the 12-4. They're in.

That leaves the Baltimore Ravens, 34-3 conquerors of the Bengals, and your New England Patriots.

The Ravens are 8-4 and they are now 7-3 in the conference. The Patriots are 7-5 and 5-5 in the conference.

But the Ravens will definitely have to earn it. Their remaining schedule: Washington, Pittsburgh (I can hear the collisions already), at Dallas, and Jacksonville.

Am I reaching? Tell me.

As poorly as the Patriots played yesterday, is it not reasonable to believe they will win at Seattle, at Oakland, and home against Arizona? And if they need the game, don't you like their chances at Buffalo on the final day of the season? Can we not envision a scenario in which the Ravens go 2-2, or even 1-3 and the Patriots go 3-1 or 4-0 and slip by them?

I'm just asking.

There was nothing good to be taken from yesterday's game; that's for sure. The only touchdown was set up by a nice Mike Vrabel interception at the Steeler 14. Good play by Vrabel? Sure. Horrible play by Ben Roethlisberger? Oh, absolutely. He probably shouldn't have thrown it at all. So the Patriots pushed it in from the 14. Whoop-de-do.

That was just under three minutes into the game, and the Patriots never scored another touchdown.

Well, yes, it was 10-10 at the half, and that was only because Stephen Gostkowski was wide right on a 27-yard field goal attempt after the Patriots had moved the ball effectively for one of the few times all day, advancing from their 27 to a first and goal at the Steeler 9 before Matt Cassel tried three unsuccessful passes to Randy Moss.

The real problems started with a kickoff following a tie-breaking 35-yard field goal by Pittsburgh's Jeff Reed in the third quarter. Matthew Slater failed to secure the ball, ("There's no excuse. You have to field the ball") then kneed it away, and when they picked everyone off the ensuing pile, Keyaron Fox was in firm possession of the football. Fox plays for the other guys, and now the Steelers had the ball at the New England 8. Two plays later, Roethlisberger hit Ward for a touchdown pass, and the long, cold, dreary, and moist countdown to a Steeler victory had begun.

Before this one came to its merciful conclusion, Cassel would be strip-sacked twice by James Harrison and there would be two interceptions, the second of which Lawrence Timmons returned 89 yards before he was brought down at the New England 1 by Benjamin Watson (remember Denver?).

Cassel finished with rather grim statistics, which is what usually happens to quarterbacks facing the Steelers. He was 19 for 39 for 169 yards, no TDs, and those two picks. He was sacked five times. His quarterback rating, for whatever that's worth, was 39.4.

Well, guess what? Only one QB has thrown for 200 yards against the Steelers this season and that was Peyton Manning. Join the club, young man.

These kind of humbling experiences shouldn't shock anyone. The 2008 New England Patriots are not an elite team. They're an OK team. It was always about the schedule this year, even with Brady, and now the schedule is once again their friend. Yes, they'll have to play better than this, but they can. And will.

The Steelers have loftier ambitions, and why not? They're good. The defense is a monster. They can run the ball. And Roethlisberger, who has had major issues with his throwing shoulder, is playing better. The guy has won a Super Bowl. He knows what he's doing.

"I'm not saying it was a statement game for us," said center Justin Hartwig. "But it was a big game for us. We're the 2008 Steelers, and they're not the 2007 undefeated Patriots. We came in here with a physical mentality. We were able to run the ball and do what we had to do."

The OK team played the elite team and it was put in its place. Are you like, shocked? You shouldn't be. The Steelers are gone now, and the Patriots won't see anyone that good for the remainder of the regular season.

The Seahawks and Raiders are 5-19 combined. Think about that when you put your head on the pillow tonight.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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