What it means: There shouldn’t be any playoff talk around the Steelers’ locker room after the team lost six of its first eight games for just the fourth time since 1970. This team would have to win seven of its final eight games to have any chance of making the playoffs, and the Steelers haven’t shown that they can string more than two wins together at a time. Focus now will turn to bigger-picture issues such as what younger players the Steelers should play over veterans in the second half of the season and who will take the fall for what is sure to be Mike Tomlin’s first losing season in Pittsburgh.
Stock watch: A complete and utter collapse by the defense has left that proud unit in tatters. The Steelers allowed Tom Brady to throw for 400 or more yards for the fifth time in his career and also yielded 100-yard games to three Patriots receivers, including rookie Aaron Dobson. New England was also quite effective running the ball, as evidenced by the 610 yards of offense it rolled up against a defense that had allowed the fewest total yards in each of the past two seasons. The Steelers have scoffed for several years now at the perception that their defense has gotten old. Brady, who threw for 116 yards last Sunday, made the Steelers’ defense look ancient.
Gronk effect: The Steelers had done a good job of holding opposing tight ends in check save for a 61-yard reception allowed to the Bengals’ Tyler Eifert in the second game of the season. That changed Sunday, when Rob Gronkowski announced that he is back from forearm and back injuries in a big way. He and Brady exploited the Steelers’ lack of speed at the back of their defense as the two hooked up seven times for 119 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. Gronkowski, who graduated from Woodland Hills High School in Pittsburgh, finished with a career-high nine receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown. He also drew a pass-interference penalty in the end zone late in the first half that set up a Patriots touchdown. Gronkowski has four touchdowns in three games against the Steelers.
Next up: The Steelers return home next Sunday to play the 3-6 Bills. It will be interesting to see the reception the Steelers get from their fans -- and how many empty seats there will be at Heinz Field. The last time fans saw the Steelers in person the team had just beaten the Ravens on a field goal as time expired to breathe new life into their season. Now the Steelers have little hope of turning their season around after deflating losses at Oakland and New England. The boo birds could be out in full force as the unthinkable in Pittsburgh has happened: the Pirates played meaningful games in October, while the Steelers won’t play any meaningful games after October.