PITTSBURGH — Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels, making his second start in place of injured James Conner, ran for a career-high 142 yards and made a critical third-down reception in the fourth quarter as Pittsburgh snapped a three-game losing streak by holding off the New England 17-10 on Sunday.
Ben Roethlisberger threw for 235 yards with two first-half touchdowns and two interceptions as the Steelers (8-5-1) remained in front of Baltimore in the AFC North with two weeks to go in the season. Chris Boswell, who has struggled so badly this season the team held open tryouts during the week, atoned for a 32-yard miss in the third quarter by drilling a 48-yarder with 2:30 remaining.
Pittsburgh’s defence, which let fourth-quarter leads slip away each of the last two games, made it stand. The Patriots (9-5) missed a chance to clinch their 10th straight AFC East title when Tom Brady’s pass into the end zone for Julian Edelman was knocked down by Pittsburgh’s Morgan Burnett.
Brady finished 25 of 36 for 279 yards with a touchdown and an interception while losing to the Steelers for the first time since 2011 and just the third time in 14 career meetings. Pittsburgh held tight end Rob Gronkowski to two receptions for 21 yards. Brady flung a jump ball to Gronkowski deep in Pittsburgh territory midway through the fourth quarter that was picked off by cornerback Joe Haden.
The uncharacteristically sloppy Patriots were flagged 14 times for 106 yards and their problematic run defence couldn’t find an answer for Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State who was considered a project when the Steelers took a flyer on him.
Not so much anymore.
Sprinting through gaping holes and showing plenty of burst, Samuels regularly found himself running into the New England secondary. The leading receiver in N.C. State history also made a leaping grab on third-and-9 on Pittsburgh’s penultimate drive that helped set up Boswell’s field goal.
Both teams came in hurting, taking some of the shine off a rivalry that has been meaningful if one-sided. The Patriots lost on a last-second 69-yard double-lateral touchdown to Miami. Pittsburgh somehow fell to the woeful Raiders in Oakland, a third-straight setback that trimmed its once-comfortable lead in the AFC North to a half-game over Baltimore. That left coach Mike Tomlin promising the team would not “sit on its hands” in search of answers.
There were tweaks in the secondary, with cornerback Artie Burns reclaiming his starting spot, though they didn’t last long. Not after Brady hit a laughably wide-open Hogan for a 63-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Hogan’s TD was one of the few big plays created by the Patriots, who again struggled to get much going on the road. New England finished the regular season 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium, not exactly promising for a club that would almost certainly have to travel at least once — and maybe twice — if it wants to return to the Super Bowl.
Patriots: Host Buffalo next Sunday. New England is unbeaten at home this season (6-0).
Steelers: Visit New Orleans next Sunday. Pittsburgh’s last road victory against the Saints came in 1990.
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Will Graves, The Associated Press