PITTSBURGH — With the ball in Tom Brady’s hands with 2:30 to go, down a touchdown, playing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was almost guaranteed the New England Patriots would score a touchdown. The only question was whether Bill Belichick would kick the extra point or go for two and the win at Heinz Field.

With the 2018 Patriots, however, nothing has been guaranteed. Many of the tenets you’ve come to know, or have believed about the team, have either been tested or can basically be thrown out the window.

There was no usual Brady comeback. Instead, the man who has a habit of pulling these games out came up short. He got as close as the Pittsburgh 11-yard line with the offense, but did not get in the end zone in a rare 17-10 loss against the Steelers.

The series before that, Brady threw an ill-advised ball that was picked off by Joe Haden, killing another drive at the Steelers 16. Any other time, Brady successfully throws that ball away.

Not this year.

Even the people waving the Terrible Towels were stunned. They were expecting the worst. They’ve been on the receiving end too many times. But these aren’t your typical Patriots.

Instead of the usual December momentum ride into the playoffs, Bill Belichick has a sputtering ship. He has a team that just lost back-to-back games in the month he considers the most pivotal.

Losing twice in December? You have to go back 16 years to the 2002 season for the last time that happened.

There’s just been so much that’s been un-Patriot-like with this group. Road warriors? Hardly the case. They haven’t played this poorly on the road in awhile. With Sunday’s loss, they finished the year at 3-5. The mistakes just keep repeating. Five false start penalties in a game?

Really?

“This year’s been a little different,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater. “We’ve had some tough sledding on the road. That’s what football is sometimes. We really can’t feel sorry for ourselves. There’s still a lot for us to play for. But we certainly need to figure out who we are on the road as opposed to who we are” at home.

They’re 9-5. The last time they lost at least five games was nine years ago (2009). They’re now the third seed, and have set themselves up to eventually play on the road and play wild-card weekend.

They haven’t advanced to the Super Bowl when they don’t have a first-round playoff bye.

“You know, we’re in a tough spot obviously,” said Slater. “We put ourselves in a tough spot, but at the same time, we haven’t lost our belief in each other. … There’s really no time for us to feel sorry for ourselves. We need to figure it out and keep competing and try to improve.”

The comfort used to be having Belichick and Brady. That was always the fallback. Because everything always seemed to be fine with them around. They were always the advantage over everyone. They’d make up for all of the mistakes. But that advantage is waning.

This team just hasn’t clicked for whatever reason. Defensively, it can’t stop the run. That doesn’t help the pass defense.

Last week, they surrendered 189 yards on the ground to the Dolphins. On Sunday, it was 158 yards to the Steelers, a team without Le’Veon Bell and without Bell’s backup James Conner. Pittsburgh’s next backup – Jaylen Samuels – rushed 19 times for 142 yards.

Teams don’t go anywhere if they can’t stop the run. This Patriots team is going nowhere if that kind of production continues.

“You can’t sit here and sulk about it. You have to find ways to win,” said Duron Harmon, who picked off Ben Roethlisberger twice in the loss. “That’s the type of people we got on our team. We got fighters, we got people who are mentally tough. If there are any people who are going to figure it out, it’s this group. We’ll figure it out. It’s just a tough one to swallow right now.”

Julian Edelman, who is a bit of a posterboy for the season – playing well but also committing penalties and having a few costly drops – still thinks there’s hope.

“We’re still trying to improve. There’s a lot of football left,” he said. “Whether you win or lose, you just got to get back on the train.”

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