Tom E. Curran

Patriots' stirring upset of Steelers shouldn't alter the endgame

Week 14 was a step in the right direction, but the Patriots are still a bad football team.

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They‘ll hate themselves in April if they don’t have the draft by the short and curlies thanks to one wild, drunken, Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

The Patriots will deal with it then. Today, as they wake up in their clothes and do a panic search for their wallet, there are no regrets. It was a good night. The boys needed it.

Maybe I’m a sap, but I’m happy for Bill Belichick. The sand’s running out of the hourglass. His team has hit rock bottom about six times in two seasons only to find that they could go even lower. His obituary as head coach of the Patriots is half-written. The team he took to unprecedented heights was the worst in the league going into Thursday night.

Then in primetime his defense played out of its mind (again), a backup quarterback overachieved and his team stomped on the hearts of Steelers fans. He’s got a free weekend with beautiful weather, a wide-open Friday night, Army-Navy in the stadium on Saturday and a Sunday to sit in the recliner and nap with a tiny smile on his famously misery-creased mug.

If Bill is in the final 30 days of his 8,750-day reign, this is as close to a farewell celebration he can get, and I hope he’s cheered every time he lifts an eyebrow on Saturday.

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But let’s not get crazy, OK? Don’t go wondering if the smoothness of the Patriots' offensive operation for 30 minutes was anything other than “dead cat bounce”, or if the Patriots would be sniffing the playoffs if they just let Zappe cook earlier in the year. There’s no need for anyone to be victory-lapping, “I told you so-ing” or wondering if it’s time to run it back.

I actually saw this same movie 31 years ago. Only then, in 1992, the Patriots were 0-9 before they couldn’t watch any more Tommy Hodson and turned to rookie Scott Zolak. Zo played out of his mind in a 34-31 overtime win over the Colts and followed it up by leading a 24-3 win over the Jets. Then the team returned to hibernation, was an offensive abomination, finished 2-14 and drafted Drew Bledsoe.

That’s the model to follow. In getting to 2-10, the Patriots removed all ambiguity about who they were. A win over a Steelers team that lost five days earlier to a similarly inept Arizona team does not wipe away the Patriots' losses to the Cowboys, Saints, Raiders, Commanders, Colts, Giants and Chargers, no matter how you feel in the afterglow.

You felt the same way after they beat the Bills 29-25, remember? You actually felt better then, didn’t you? You kinda liked Mac Jones a little bit on that Monday. Or at least you were holding your fire.

So before you start wistfully wondering about how things might have been different if Zappe was the starter after the 34-0 loss to the Saints, remember that in the game AFTER that loss the Patriots didn’t even dress him. They had Malik Cunningham – never-thrown-an NFL-pass Malik Cunningham – as Mac Jones’ backup against the Raiders.

So clearly Bailey wasn’t making a great case for more reps behind the scenes. And then the Buffalo aberration muddied the waters and Mac got more chances until nobody could look at it anymore.

Zappe’s now played 10 quarters in relief of Jones. He’s shown way more pocket poise than Jones, who tossed up more fallaways than Wizards-era Michael Jordan in his 10 games as the starter. Zappe stepped FORWARD in the pocket when the space was there for him and didn’t look like a chipmunk on 128 when there was pressure around him. The ball doesn’t explode off his hand, but he’s clearly got more velocity than Jones and he’s generally keeping his downfield throws in the field of play, which is a plus.

Even his lone interception -- while not great -- wasn’t mind-bending. On the Patriots' three touchdown drives in the first half, they faced a third-and-9 that Zappe converted with a scramble and a third-and-3 on which Zappe hit JuJu Smith-Schuster on a slant that went for 28 yards. He followed that with a brilliant 24-yard throw to Hunter Henry for a score.

The other drive was a two-play, 11-yard deal after a Jabrill Peppers pick that Zappe closed with a great throw to Henry at the back of the end zone. But that throw was made with confidence. Not the tepid, “hope-this-gets-there/is-this-the-right-decision” vibe that Jones had fallen into.

In the first half, Zappe got time and he did something with it. Some of his checkdown throws to Ezekiel Elliott in the flat were his best throws of the night. Nothing open, deliver it crisp and on time to Zeke. Easy. No drama.

The Patriots got to play from ahead against a horrible quarterback in Mitch Trubisky. So their scoreless second half that featured a pick and five punts on six possessions felt less offensive. But it was pretty punchless. Ninety-four total yards. Number of plays run on the six drives: four, four, three, five, three and three. But they held on.

Good for them. Maybe not in the long run. But c’est la vie. As opposed to the last two decades, when even 10-point wins over crap teams were seen as catastrophic, any success now is a glass of water in the Sahara. Live it up.

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