Ugly loss aside, Patriots are in the hunt

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- I didn't take a scientific poll, but based on the general disgust in the Gillette Stadium press box and among the concessionaires meandering about the tunnels after Sunday's game, the New England Patriots don't belong in the playoffs.

There won't be too much cheer in the newspaper columns that will be flung on the doorsteps of New England homes Monday morning, or on various blogs or call-in shows.

The Patriots bumbled throughout the second half in a 33-10 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the type of team you measure yourself against in the AFC. The Patriots came up small in so many ways.

But count me among those who are bullish on the Patriots despite Sunday's shortcomings.

They weren't exposed as much as they were overwhelmed by the NFL's most treacherous defense and victimized by enough self-inflicted wounds to sicken Plaxico Burress.

The Patriots are 7-5 and only one game behind the AFC East-leading New York Jets, who were defeated at home 34-17 by the Denver Broncos.

"We blew an opportunity today," Patriots left guard Logan Mankins said. "We'd be in first place. We blew a big one today. As the season goes on each game gets bigger and bigger. It'll be another big week."

The last quarter of the season will be arduous for New England: at the Seattle Seahawks, at the Oakland Raiders, home against the Arizona Cardinals, at the Buffalo Bills. But the Patriots have proven they know how to manage a campaign.

Here are the five ways the Patriots can pull themselves together and make the playoffs a sixth straight season:

1. Forget Sunday

One of the Patriots' biggest strengths is their short memories. They maintain a level of detachment teams dream about. The victories aren't as joyful in their locker room, but the defeats don't sting as much.

"We're good at it," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said of disregarding games quickly. "We realize that to put ourselves in the picture, period, we have to win a game. We can't worry about winning two games or three games or four games. We have to start by winning a game.

"Four games left, but really I hope we just look at it as one game. ... We've always done a good job of putting a big losses and big wins behind us. We have to use that experience and just come to work [Monday] and try to get better."

2. Remember who they are

The Patriots kept the game close until halftime. Their offense was efficient and their defense was fine. The game was competitive.

But the Patriots were plagued by uncharacteristic blunders at the end of the first half and throughout the rest of the game.

Randy Moss and Jabar Gaffney combined for several dropped passes that had nothing to do with how they were defended. Moss botched a would-be touchdown pass, and two plays later Stephen Gostkowski missed a chip-shot field goal that would have given them a halftime lead.

In the second half, the Patriots committed all five of their turnovers -- on consecutive possessions, no less. The offensive line couldn't keep the Steelers from sacking Matt Cassel five times.

"You don't even know," Mankins replied when asked how painful the turnovers were. "That's killer. That's like the worst thing in football is turnovers.

"That stuff kills you. Right after that we fumble a kickoff return, two strips sacks, an interception ... You can't beat a Pop Warner team doing that."

Here are where the Steelers' second-half drives began: own 14, Patriots 8, Patriots 26, Patriots 47, own 34, Patriots 1.

3. Win both games out west

Patriots Nation can start panicking if its boys don't return from their two-game West Coast trip with a pair of victories and a 9-5 record.

Granted, that won't be easy. The abysmal trend for teams traveling three time zones is well-documented. But the Seahawks and Raiders are not the Steelers.

The Patriots will stay out west rather than return home between games, as they did for Weeks 5 and 6 against the San Francisco 49ers (win) and San Diego Chargers (loss).

"It'll be good," Gaffney said. "We'll be out there by ourselves. This is who we have to rally around. We'll be depending on each other to get this thing turned around.

"We're still high on ourselves. We've just got to finish up strong. We can't win a game, lose a game. You don't alternate like that. We've got to string some wins together."

4. Create time and space for Cassel

One major piece of information to keep in mind: The Steelers own the best defense in the NFL. They came into Week 13 ranked No. 1 across the board in total defense, run defense and pass defense.

That they befuddled Cassel doesn't necessarily mean his recent success was fluky.

"It's not about Matt Cassel," Cassel said. "This is about 11 guys on offense trying to get better. This isn't about one guy's performance or Matt Cassel and his stock rising or dropping. I could care less about that. I care about winning ballgames."

In his previous two games against respectable defenses, he threw for at least 400 yards. The Patriots lost to the Jets in overtime and soundly beat the Dolphins.

Much of that had to do with Cassel's ability to handle pass rushes comfortably and make his reads. He had been sacked only six times in his previous four games. The Steelers dumped him five times.

"They're a good pass-rushing team," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We have to do everything better. We have to block them better. We have to throw, catch and get the ba
ll out on time. They just did a better job than we did."

But against most teams, the Patriots will do a better job than the opponent.

5. Stay healthy

We don't know how receiver Wes Welker is feeling. He was knocked out of the game by a wicked hit by safety Ryan Clark late in the third quarter and didn't return.

The Patriots have continued to win despite a series of significant injuries: Tom Brady, Laurence Maroney, LaMont Jordan, Rodney Harrison, Adalius Thomas, Ty Warren ...

But that doesn't mean they can afford any more.