New England running back Ezekiel Elliott heads off the field after Thursday night’s 21-18 win in Pittsburgh. Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

With all of Bill Belichick’s accomplishments over two decades in New England, he’s never pulled this off before.

The six-time Super Bowl champion – one of the greatest coaches in NFL history – had his players rallying to his defense in an attempt to end a five-game losing streak and perhaps even save his job.

“I just feel good we could get it done for Bill and the rest of the coaches,” safety Jabrill Peppers told ESPN following the 21-18 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. “I don’t really like all the flak he’s been getting. Because it’s on us as players to go out and execute.”

The Patriots (3-10) scored three first-half touchdowns – as many as they’d had in the previous four games combined – and held on for their first win since Week 7. In his second start since Mac Jones was benched, Bailey Zappe threw for a career-high three touchdowns, completing 19 of 28 passes for 240 yards.

“We’ve been through a lot these past couple of weeks,” receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “For us, especially as an offense to go out and put points on the board, to help our defense out, (there’s) so much relief.”

Belichick, 71, has guided the Patriots to six NFL titles since arriving in New England in 2000, along with three other conference championships and 17 AFC East titles in 19 seasons for what is one of the greatest dynasties of the league’s Super Bowl era. He has won 332 games (including playoffs), second on the NFL’s all-time victory list behind Don Shula.


But Belichick’s pursuit of the longtime Miami mentor had stalled as the Patriots skidded to the bottom of the AFC standings, and it is now possible he will try to catch Shula from another sideline next season. Asked Friday about Peppers expressing his support, Belichick said: “Yeah, well, that’s great. But I would say the big thing for me is what I appreciate is what the players do every day.”

“Obviously, a level of frustration with the overall season. But, on a week-to-week basis, you kind of put that aside and focus on the week that you have,” he said.

The offense came to life after scoring a total of 13 points in the previous three games, including a 6-0 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday in which it didn’t reach the red zone. Hunter Henry had a pair of touchdown receptions, including one highlight-reel catch to make it 21-3 midway through the second quarter. Ezekiel Elliott ran for 68 yards and also caught seven passes for 72 yards.

The special teams again hurt them, with a blocked punt setting up a Steelers touchdown that cut the Patriots’ lead to 21-18 with 11 minutes left in the game. There was also a penalty with Pittsburgh lined up to punt that appeared to be an offsides on New England’s Jahlani Tavai, which would have given the Steelers a first down, but was inexplicably called a false start on the offense.


With No. 1 running back Rhamondre Stevenson injured, Elliott had a season high of 22 carries and a touchdown catch. He also had his highest total for receptions and receiving yards while providing his high in total yards from scrimmage in more than two years. Most importantly, Elliott chased down Mykal Walker after his third-quarter interception, pushing him out of bounds at the Patriots’ 16 and preventing a likely touchdown.


The Steelers turned the ball over on downs after going for it on fourth-and-2 from the 8, meaning the seven points saved could have been the difference in the 21-18 score.

“Zeke made a big play on the interception, keep them out of the end zone. Ended up getting a defensive stop on it. That was a huge play,” Belichick said.


The victory put the Patriots two games behind – or is it ahead of – Carolina (1-11) in the race for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 draft. New England is tied for the second-worst record in the NFL with Arizona (which beat the Steelers on Sunday); the Patriots would pick before the Cardinals (3-10) because of an inferior strength of schedule.


3-1: Zappe is 3-1 as an NFL starter, improving to 1-1 this season after winning both of his starts last season when Jones was injured.


The Patriots failed to fatten up on the cushy part of their schedule, going 1-4 against the Commanders, Colts, Giants, Chargers and Steelers. Now come the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs, followed by the playoff-contending Broncos and Bills. The Kansas City game was flexed out of “Monday Night Football” to avoid a potential national TV blowout.

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