Their momentum gone and the Pittsburgh Steelers surging behind backup quarterbackLandry Jones, the New England Patriots needed something to get them going.
They found inspiration in the usual places: LeGarrette Blount's churning legs, Tom Brady's accurate right arm andRob Gronkowski's massive hands.
Twice the undermanned Steelers needed one stop to give their offense the ball with a chance to take the lead on Sunday afternoon.
And twice the Patriots instead went right down the field instead, pulling away for a 27-16 victory that left little doubt as to where the balance of power in the AFC sits as the season reaches its halfway point.
The Steelers were within 14-13 when Blount broke runs of 11 and 25 yards to set up a 36-yard touchdown from Brady to Gronkowski early in the third quarter.
When another Pittsburgh field goal brought Pittsburgh within four, the Patriots responded with another long touchdown drive fueled by a 37-yard catch-and-run by Gronkowski that set up Blount's second touchdown of the game.
"It was good to score like that and good to make plays in the second half that we needed to," Brady said. "They certainly made it tough on us."
Maybe, but the Steelers (4-3) also made it tough on themselves. Pittsburgh scored one touchdown in four trips to the red zone and was flagged 10 times for 85 yards, including a holding call in the second quarter that wiped out a touchdown pass that would have tied the game.
Instead, Chris Boswell missed a 42-yard field goal and Pittsburgh never legitimately came close to evening the score again.
"You can't waste red zone trips, you have to come off blocks and make tackles in the run game, you can't give up explosion plays, we did," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "That's why we lost."
Brady, Blount and Gronkowski had plenty to do with it too. Brady completed 19 of 26 for 222 yards and two touchdowns to improve to 9-2 against Pittsburgh. Gronkowski caught four passes for 93 yards and his 68th touchdown catch, tying Stanley Morgan for the most in club history. Blount finished with 127 yards rushing and two scores against the team he walked away from 2014 .
"His runs were able to settle us down," New England coach Bill Belichick said of Blount.
New England (6-1) remained perfect since Brady returned from his four-game "Deflategate" suspension and while the Patriots lost a pair of fumbles they also didn't throw an interception, making them the third team since 1960 to get through the first seven weeks of the season without throwing it to the other team, joining the 1960 Browns and 2008 Redskins.
Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley hardly limited the playbook with Jones under center. The fourth-year quarterback did what Roethlisberger likes to do, particularly getting the ball to running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
Bell finished with 149 yards of total offense and Brown caught seven passes for 106 yards, but too often Pittsburgh settled for field goals (or field goal attempts) when touchdowns were required.
"We just got to the red zone a lot of times and turned the ball over, you can't have that," Bell said. "I mean, it is a small margin for error against a team like that."
The 39-year-old quarterback who once ran the 40-yard dash at the combine in a not-so fleet 5.28 seconds can still run away from the bad guys. Brady ran for three first downs in the first half, mashing his way on a quarterback sneak and twice escaping pressure and outrunning defenders a decade or more younger for the necessary yardage.
New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski missed a regular season extra point during his rookie year in 2006 and then didn't miss another one until last week against Cincinnati, an NFL record streak of 479 attempts between misfires (though there was that costly missed kick in last year's AFC championship game ). Gostkowski didn't have to wait nearly as long until watching a second one go astray. Gostkowski misfired on a third-quarter extra point that kept the Steelers within seven.
"This is a tough place to kick," Belichick said. "I'm not making any excuses. The kicker on the other side of the field had trouble too."
In addition to the 42-yarder he missed, Boswell misfired on a 54-yarder with the Steelers down two scores in the fourth quarter.
"We're looking like garbage right now. This is terrible right now." - Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier on his team's run defense.
Patriots: visit Buffalo next Sunday. The Bills beat the Brady-less Patriots 16-0 in New England on Oct. 2.
Steelers: off next week then visit AFC North rival Baltimore on Nov. 6.