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Steelers fall to Patriots

The Steelers have made a habit of digging themselves into holes this season. And more often than not, they had dug themselves out of them with a furious fourth-quarter rally.

Thursday night against the Patriots, they came up short.

Bailey Zappe threw three first-half touchdown passes, as the Patriots jumped out to a 21-3 lead on the Steelers en route to a 21-18 victory here Thursday night at Acrisure Stadium.

The loss, the second-in-a-row for the Steelers, drops them to 7-6 this season and puts any playoff hopes in jeopardy. The Steelers came into the game sitting in the 5th spot in the AFC playoff field. New England improves to 3-10.

"They made the necessary plays; we didn't," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "(I) thought we fought in the second half, but to come up short on the turnover in terms of the points is the difference in the game."

The Patriots (3-10) scored a touchdown off an interception on a short field in the first half, the Steelers were turned away on a similar opportunity late in the third quarter.

With Mitch Trubisky starting in place of injured Kenny Pickett, the offense faltered early. It was Trubisky's first start since leading the Steelers to a win at Carolina in Week 14 of last season.

Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 14 game against the New England Patriots at Acrisure Stadium

For a game featuring two teams that came into the night averaging a combined 28 points, there were plenty of offensive fireworks in the first half.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the majority of those plays came from the Patriots.

Zappe directed an 8-play 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game, converting the only third down of the series with a third-and-9 run for 11 yards. He also completed a 37-yard pass to former Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster before tossing an 11-yard touchdown pass to running back Ezekiel Elliott for a 7-0 lead.

The Steelers answered with a field goal drive of their own, getting the ball to the New England 35 before settling for a 56-yard kick from Chris Boswell to cut the lead to 7-3.

But on the opening play of the second quarter, Trubisky was intercepted by safety Jabrill Peppers on a third-down pass intended for Pat Freiermuth at the 43. Peppers returned the interception 32 yards to the Pittsburgh 11, and two plays later, Zappe tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Hunter Henry to give the Patriots a 14-3 advantage.

The Patriots took advantage of a 34-yard punt to score their next touchdown, as Pressley Harvin's kick gave New England the ball at its own 41.

On third-and-3, Zappe connected with Smith-Schuster down the seam for a 28-yard gain to the Pittsburgh 24. On the next play, Zappe again found Henry, this time for a 24-yard touchdown over the outstretched hand of safety Damontae Kazee, who had come over to help on the play, for a 21-3 lead.

The Steelers finally answered with a touchdown drive of their own, going 75 yards to score on a 25-yard pass from Trubisky to Diontae Johnson, who had gotten behind cornerback J.C. Jackson to trim the lead to 21-10 going into the half.

Zappe finished the half 14 of 21 for 196 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with 19 completions on 28 attempts for 222 yards.

The Steelers drove to the New England 44 on the opening possession of the second half, but Trubisky was sacked at midfield on third down, forcing the Steelers to punt.

Cam Heyward ended the Patriots' next possession with a sack, giving him 80.5 in his career to tie James Harrison for second most in team history, but the offense went three-and-out, punting the ball back to the Patriots again.

Elandon Roberts tipped a pass intended for Smith-Schuster into the air where it was picked off by Mykal Walker and returned to the New England 16. But the Steelers came up short on fourth-and-2 when Trubisky's flip to Jaylen Warren gained just one yard.

"We were down there. We play to win," Tomlin said. "We wanted to be aggressive. We just didn't get it done."

But the Steelers again forced a punt and Miles Killebrew came up with a block – his second of the season. The Steelers took over at the New England 26.

That set up Trubisky for a 1-yard score on a quarterback sneak. Trubisky then threw a 2-point conversion pass to Freiermuth to cut New England's lead to 21-18 with 11:44 remaining in the game.

The Steelers got the ball back twice after that, but were unable to move across midfield.

On their first possession, Patriots linebacker Jahlani Tavai appeared to jump offside before the ball could be snapped on a punt, which would have given the Steelers a first down. But after huddling, officials ruled that he had been drawn offside by long snapper Christian Kuntz raising his head.

"I was given an explanation. I don't know that I agree with it, but I was given an explanation," Tomlin said.

Their final possession came just before the two-minute warning, and the Steelers pushed the ball out to their own 49.

But Trubisky overthrew George Pickens on third-and-2, then was unable to complete a pass deep down the left sideline to Diontae Johnson on fourth down, turning the ball over to the Patriots, who ran out the clock down to 22 seconds before giving the ball back again with 15 seconds remaining in the game at the Pittsburgh 13.

Trubisky was 22 of 36 for 190 yards with one touchdown and one interception while also running for a score, while the Steelers generated just 264 yards of offense compared to 303 for New England.