Bailey Zappe threw three first-half touchdown passes, and the New England Patriots snapped a five-game skid while damaging the playoff hopes of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 21-18 victory on Thursday night.
Zappe passed for 240 yards in his second start for the Patriots (3-10), who became the second two-win team in five days to hand the Steelers (7-6) a potentially season-altering loss at home.
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.
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.
Zappe guided the Patriots to their first opening-drive touchdown of the season when he hit Elliot in the flat and the running back raced in from 11 yards out.
Two plays after Jabril Peppers stepped in front of Trubisky's pass into triple coverage, Zappe found Hurst in the back of the end zone to give the Patriots their biggest lead of the season.
The advantage swelled to 21-3 two possessions later when Hurst made a diving grab at the goal line for a 24-yard score that had some in the black-clad crowd chanting for backup quarterback Mason Rudolph, who has been buried on the bench for the last two years.
The switch to Rudolph never came, and while Trubisky got the Steelers within striking distance behind a 25-yard touchdown pass to Johnson late in the second quarter and a 1-yard sneak with 11:44 to play that brought Pittsburgh within three, it wasn't enough.
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.
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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