The Patriots were able to downplay the significance of their defeat at Miami in Week 14 mostly because of the crazy final play it took for the Dolphins to grab the victory in the closing seconds.
But after showing multiple shortcomings in its 17-10 loss at Pittsburgh on Sunday, New England suddenly looks nothing like the dominant force it's been at this point of the season in most years.
The Patriots are still in position to earn their 10th consecutive AFC East title. But with two games left in the regular season, New England (9-5) enters Week 16 as the No. 3 seed in the AFC behind Kansas City and Houston.
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While much can still change before the postseason, it's left the Patriots facing the possibility of having to open the playoffs in the wild-card round for the first time since 2009. The Patriots have never started the postseason on the road during the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era.
New England finished 3-5 on the road this season after Sunday's loss. The Patriots have also lost consecutive games in December for the first time since Weeks 15 and 16 of 2002. That was also the only season Brady has missed the postseason after starting at least two games.
The good news for the Patriots is that they play their final two regular-season games at home, beginning with Sunday's matchup with Buffalo (5-9) before closing their schedule on Dec. 30 against the New York Jets (4-10).
Whether home or away, Patriots receiver Julian Edelman believes they have plenty of time to figure things out despite losing the past two games.
"We're definitely confident," he said following Sunday's loss. "We have a group of guys who work hard. We have a coaching staff that puts us in great situations and puts great plans together, we just gotta go out and really focus on the little things. It starts with snapping the ball and not having penalties. If we do that, we'll get better."
What Edelman was eluding to was the season-high 14 penalties for 106 yards that New England was called for in Sunday's loss, which included five false starts. The mishaps negated long gains by the offense and led to five consecutive punts after scoring its lone touchdown.
The biggest mishaps occurred in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 14-10 and facing third-and-8 on the Pittsburgh 13, Brady completed a pass to Rob Gronkowski to the Steelers 5. But the play was negated by a holding penalty on Marcus Cannon. Pushed back to the 15, Brady was forced from the pocket and threw an off-balance pass toward the sideline that was intercepted two plays later by Joe Haden.
Then on its final possession, New England drove to the Pittsburgh 11 before a holding call on Shaq Mason pushed the team back to the 21. With no timeouts, Brady ended the game with three consecutive incompletions.
"We just gotta play better football," center David Andrews said Monday. "We can't do things to hurt ourselves."
There are just as many concerns about the defense.
The Patriots held Pittsburgh to 17 points, but they continued to have trouble stopping the run. Steelers rookie running back Jaylen Samuels had a season-high 142 yards on 19 carries. New England has allowed at least 104 yards rushing in each of its five losses this season.
Coach Bill Belichick said the Steelers' success was a result of their execution instead of anything Pittsburgh did schematically or fundamental deficiencies on his team's part.
"We always try to play with good fundamentals and technique, so that will never change," Belichick said Monday.
Still, it's becoming a recurring theme and an area of concern for a defense that ended Sunday's games ranked 17th in the NFL, allowing 116.2 yards per game on the ground.
Safety Duron Harmon said their effort against the Steelers is a sign they must find a way to play better to get where they want to be in January.
"We could've done some things better that could've helped them not score 17 points," he said Sunday. "We gotta look at it this way, we're a team there's been times we gave up 42 points and our offense did enough for us to win. We gotta be able to do that."