Patriots may have dropped shot at playoffs - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Tom Curran, NBCSports.com

Patriots may have dropped shot at playoffs

FOXBORO, Mass. - The Matt Cassel Monorail To Superstardom went off the rails just a bit Sunday. It may have taken the Patriots playoff hopes with it.

In a sleet-soaked 33-10 loss to the Steelers, New England committed turnovers on five consecutive second-half possessions - a difficult feat even if you're trying to give it away.

Four of them came via Cassel, the standup stand-in for Tom Brady. Two came on strip sacks by Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison. Two others came on interceptions thrown by Cassel. The other turnover - which came with 5:39 left in the third and Pittsburgh leading 13-10, started it all. It was a muffed kickoff return by rookie Matthew Slater. In all, the Steelers turned the New England turnovers into 20 points and, with the win, improved to 9-3.

Cassel's played remarkably well for most of his 11-plus game tenure, but in New England's past two he went berserk, throwing for a total of 815 yards and six touchdowns.

Which prompted - and I do not lie - hypothetical talk-radio conversations about what the Patriots could get in a trade for Brady.

A terse Cassel was asked where the loss leaves New England.

"7-5 is where it leaves us," he said. "We have four games left and we need to go out and play well in all of them. Five games aren't going to knock us out of the playoffs right now but we have to go out and play better than we did today."

Cassel, who'll be a free agent at the end of the season, also dismissed the persistent conjecture about how his stock is being evaluated each week.

"To be completely honest, I'm not going to read what you guys write," he said. "We've got to go as a team and get better. It's not about Matt Cassel. It's about 11 guys on offense and 11 guys on defense trying to get better. This isn't about one guy's performance, Matt Cassel and his stock rising and falling. I care about our teams' performance and obviously we lost so tonight I'm upset."

New England is now 7-5, trailing the 8-4 Jets in the AFC East and the 8-4 Colts and Ravens in the race for the Wild Card.

It's unfamiliar territory. The Patriots have finished tied or alone in first in the AFC East every season since 2001. They could win each of their remaining games - at Seattle and Oakland, hosting Arizona and at Buffalo - and still wind up missing the playoffs because their fate now relies on the generosity of other teams.

They've given it a game fight without Brady and key defenders like Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison, but they are in trouble.

"That's their problem," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward, who caught five passes for 37 yards including an 11-yard touchdown. "Every team in this league's had to deal with injuries. They just made more mistakes than we did."

Pittsburgh had lost six of seven to the Patriots coming into this game including a 34-13 loss at Gillette Stadium last year.

"You heard a lot of talk about it being a rivalry," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "It hasn't been much of a rivalry because they've gotten after us. For it to be a rivalry we've got to win some and that's what we set out to do when we came up here today."

The Steelers forced New England into mistakes. Playing against a team who would give them little margin for error, the Patriots went way outside the margins. And it wasn't just the turnovers. Wide receiver Randy Moss had four drops - two in the end zone on a drive that ended with a missed field goal just before the half.

"I am speaking for myself, I am very disappointed in my play," said Moss. "Bill (Belichick) says time and again, ‘Do your job.' My job as a wide receiver is to get open, catch the ball and score touchdowns. The balls were there, they just weren't caught."

Moss said that the first drop may have gotten inside his head. "Once you drop the ball and you drop another ball, I think it does start to affect you mentally. That is why they call us professionals because we are supposed to let the bad go and get back to playing football. ... The balls were hitting my hands and hitting my body. I just couldn't secure the catch."

The door hasn't slammed on the Patriots. But reality's risen up and been recognized a bit. Their five losses have come to the Jets, Steelers, Colts, Chargers and Dolphins. All - except San Diego - are AFC playoff contenders. There's ample evidence that the Patriots are not an upper tier team this season. Their seven wins are over teams that are a combined 35-48. Their losses are to teams that are a combined 36-22. Mediocre and fighting for their playoff lives is not an accustomed place for the Patriots to be.

Said Moss, "Hopefully, this is something we can rebound from. But it does hurt. It is a bad taste."

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