There is one thing abundantly clear after the Patriots dropped a big AFC game to the Steelers on Sunday; There is not one single dominant team in the AFC this year.
The usual suspects of dominance in the AFC have all had inconsistent years so far in 2011. The Ravens were thrashed by the sub-par Jaguars last Sunday night only to rebound with an incredible comeback victory this week against the Cardinals. The Steelers have had so many up and down games, you never know who is going to show up.
The same can be said for the 2011 New England Patriots at this point. After a near death escape against the Cowboys two weeks ago, the Patriots, who had a chance to not only distance themselves from several teams in the AFC with a victory over the Steelers, but could have had some breathing room in the crowded AFC East as well.
That did not happen and if you watched the game, you could almost sense it.
The Patriots had a very uncharacteristic game offensively, and although the defense couldn't get Pittsburgh off the field on third down, it mattered not.
Brady led the Patriots on a late fourth quarter drive and at first glance, threw a touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski. However, the touchdown call was missed by the officials and not only did it cost the Patriots a touchdown at the time, but it ate up almost a minute and a half of time. Brady did end up throwing a TD to Aaron Hernandez, and a successful point after did in fact cut the Steeler's lead to 6. Instead of being down by 6 with 4:12 to play, the Patriots were down by 6 with 2:35 to go in the game. This was crippling for New England's hopes of a comeback win.
The Patriots had three timeouts and the two-minute warning, but instead opted to go for an on-side kick. It was a disastrous outcome and the game was all but over.
The Patriots got the ball back with 20 seconds to go, but a forced fumble by Pittsburgh which led to a safety for the Steelers and capped a terrible day for New England.
The final score was 25-17 in favor of the Steelers.
The Steelers had such a stranglehold on the time of possession in the game that the Patriots were lucky in a way that they only lost by the margin they did.
All the talk of the Patriots "Owning the Steelers" and all the chatter of "Brady having the Steelers' number" were gone. Those types of comments are dangerous to make in the 2011 season. No one team has any other teams "number."
With the loss, The Patriots now look up at the Steelers, who sit at (6-2) and own the AFC's best record so far. To make matters worse, the Patriots now fall back into second place in the AFC East. With Buffalo's victory over Washington in rather cogent fashion, the Bills now sit in first in the AFC East. The Patriots and the Bills have identical records at (5-2) but the Bills have control of first by way of a head to head victory over the Patriots on Sept. 25.
The Patriots also are now in a very, very crowded field of teams with near identical records, and unfortunately, have put themselves smack dab in the middle of a steel cage death match heading into the second half of the season.
How crowded is the AFC right now?
The Patriots, Bills, and Bengals all sit at (5-2).
The Texans are right behind those teams at (5-3).
The Titans and Jets are both (4-3).
The Chargers sit at (4-2) heading into action on Sunday night against the Chiefs, who are (3-3).
With the Colts, Jaguars and Dolphins all but eliminated from the postseason conversation on Sunday, and the Broncos and Browns teetering on the edge of contention, it leaves the remaining teams to slug it out the rest of the season.
The loss also overshadowed the return of long time Patriot fan favorite and all time clutch player, Kevin Faluk, who hasn't played in a game since the second game of 2010 when he suffered a season ending torn ACL.
New England's offense, which has been a virtual juggernaut in 2011, was held to just 220 total yards in the game; their worst total so far this year.
The season is certainly not in jeopardy for the Patriots by any means, but there are several reasons for concern, the first of which is their still struggling and inconsistent defense. The offense did not help out either and for the second straight game was held to 20 points or less.
The Patriots will try and get back on track when they return home to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough next Sunday to host the team that crushed their hopes of a perfect season back in 2007, The New York Giants.
Kickoff for the game is 4:15 p.m. and will be televised on Fox.