Friday March 1st, 2024 5:03AM

Bailey Zappe throws for 3 TDs, Patriots damage Steelers' playoff hopes with 21-18 win

By The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The wins used to come so easy and so often for David Andrews early in his career with the New England Patriots, the veteran center barely noticed them.

That hasn't been the case in 2023. Not with the franchise enduring its worst season in nearly a quarter century and with potentially seismic changes looming.

So yeah, there was a sense of relief after a 21-18 win over Pittsburgh on Thursday night, a throwback of sorts to the Patriots' many big wins over their longtime AFC rival, albeit with far lesser stakes.

The offense that's looked lost for a month gained some momentum behind Bailey Zappe's three touchdown passes. The defense got the stops when necessary and New England (3-10) ended a five-game losing streak while damaging Pittsburgh's increasingly brittle playoff hopes.

“No one has quit in this locker room," said Andrews, a two-time Super Bowl champion. “We're fighting, we're working. We're trying to get better. That's all you can do. That's all you can ask for. It hasn't been perfect.”

No, it hasn't. That didn't stop the Patriots from coming into Acrisure Stadium and doing something that's become routine through the years: changing the trajectory of Pittsburgh's season. And not for the better.

The Steelers (7-6) lost to a two-win team at home for the second time in five days, dropping them out of the top spot in the AFC wild-card race.

“This stings,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “But we'll be back.”

Maybe. The Steelers play three of their final four games on the road, all of them against playoff contenders.

Hunter Henry had two touchdown catches for New England. Ezekiel Elliott had 140 yards from scrimmage — 72 receiving, 68 rushing — and caught a TD for the NFL's lowest-scoring offense, which reached the end zone three times for the first time since October.

JuJu Smith-Schuster added 90 yards receiving against the team he starred for earlier in his career.

“It means a lot,” Smith-Schuster said. “You know, honestly, you know, starting my crew here and coming back here and getting a ‘W,' I love being on this side of the ball, I'll tell you that.”

It's a side of the ball New England has rarely been on in 2023. The losses have piled up at a rate not seen since coach Bill Belichick's first season in 2000. That was six Super Bowls and nearly a quarter-century ago.

For three hours on Thursday night, the Patriots found a way to do what they so frequently have done against Pittsburgh: make all the plays that matter. Belichick improved to 15-4 against the Steelers and 10-3 against Tomlin in this latest matchup between the league's two longest-tenured coaches.

Belichick coached his 507th game, moving past George Halas into second-place all-time behind Don Shula (526), but it's hardly a guarantee he'll be back for another season with the Patriots.

New England had totaled 13 points in its previous three games. The Patriots exceeded that in the first half, with Zappe hitting Elliott for an 11-yard score before finding Henry in the end zone twice to build a 21-3 lead, their largest of the season.

The normally stoic Zappe let loose when Elliott scored on the game's first possession, the first time all year New England has reached the end zone on its opening possession.

“It's really hard to score touchdowns in the NFL,” Zappe said. “You've got to celebrate each one.”

Touchdowns have been nearly as difficult to come by this season in Pittsburgh. Yet the Steelers have remained in the mix thanks in large part to their defense and an ability to thrive in tight games.

Pittsburgh, however, has lost two of its last three one-score games after winning its first six to start the season.

Mitch Trubisky completed 22 of 35 for 190 yards, passing for a touchdown and running for another while filling in for injured Steelers starter Kenny Pickett. Trubisky also threw an ill-advised pass in the first half that was picked off to set up the first of Henry's two scores, and he inexplicably threw deep to a well-covered Diontae Johnson on fourth-and-2 at midfield with just under two minutes left.

Pittsburgh got the ball back with 15 seconds remaining but had no realistic chance to score.

The Steelers managed 264 yards of offense, another step back for a group that briefly seemed on the verge of getting it together after offensive coordinator Matt Canada's firing before Thanksgiving. Pittsburgh piled up 421 yards the following week at Cincinnati, but the offense regressed in Sunday's loss to Arizona.

The Patriots, five days removed from a shutout loss to the Chargers in which they failed to reach the red zone, let alone the end zone, looked far sharper against a team that stressed it wouldn't overlook another also-ran.

It happened again anyway.

INJURIES

Steelers: OLB Alex Highsmith left in the second quarter with a neck injury. Rookie Nick Herbig played the majority of the snaps in Highsmith's absence.

UP NEXT

Patriots: Host Kansas City in a game that was moved from the Monday night timeslot to Sunday, Dec. 17.

Steelers: Visit fellow AFC wild-card contender Indianapolis on Saturday, Dec. 16.

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