Patriots only have to set the bar so low in preparation for the Pittsburgh Steelers

New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola (80) and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer (2)
New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola (80) and backup quarterback Brian Hoyer (2) will have to shake off this loss and prepare for the Steelers. –Barry Chin/Boston Globe

COMMENTARY

Consider it a twist, an underlying subplot in advance of the best showdown on the NFL regular season calendar. A vulnerable foe is suddenly scheduled for the carving table on Sunday in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have every right to crow in the days prior over wrestling home-field advantage away from the defending Super Bowl champs.

Except, we’ve seen this script written before.

Sure, the dart boards have been dusted off just in time for shouting pundits everywhere to denounce the New England Patriots somewhere in between another set of promos for My Pillow, an appropriate squabble to create in the wake of Monday night’s lifeless, 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins. For if the illusionary cliff — the celebrated one that has threatened to trip Tom Brady over its rocky edge for better parts of a decade — hasn’t made its first appearance of 2017, it’s certainly on the horizon after a lackluster performance like the one Brady had in Miami.

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So what?

The Patriots were abhorrently putrid Monday night. It was the first time since “Smells Like Teen Spirit” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 40 (1991) that the team failed to convert a third down. Brady had a 59.5 quarterback rating, two interceptions, and one touchdown, numbers more befitting for whichever schlub is quarterbacking the Cleveland Browns, not the five-time Super Bowl champ. Brady didn’t find a wide receiver until hitting Danny Amendola with 10:11 remaining in the third quarter. Patriots safety Jordan Richards couldn’t complete what might have been a game-altering sack of Jay Cutler. When Brandin Cooks wasn’t fighting for the ball (which was for at least 60 minutes on Monday), he was blanketed by Xavien Howard, who made one spectacular play on an interception. New England’s defensive front should have just worn directional signals for all the good they did at re-routing traffic, and Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead combined to rush for a mere 25 yards, a fortnight after they put together almost 200 against the same Dolphins team. All that and no Rob Gronkowski, serving his one-game suspension for his stupid late hit in Buffalo last weekend.

All that…and the Patriots lost by a touchdown?

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Is there another team that could turn such incompetence and misery into something that, at the very least, looked like something of a competitive game?

Oh, it wasn’t. The Patriots were terrible.

But if they were only a little less terrible, they’re headed to Pittsburgh with the same 11-2 mark.

“Be Less Terrible” might not have the marketing appeal of “Do Your Job,” nor the effectiveness of rallying for a productive week. But it’s the basic expectation for a game that should decide who’s the top seed in the AFC.

The renewal of Gronkowski to the lineup makes it easy to perform slightly better than awful. Brady will rebound just fine with Gronk’s impact on the passing game, which should suggest fewer three and outs than we witnessed in Miami. Cooks, born in 1993, wasn’t even a zygote the last time Patriot fans failed to even seen a single third-down conversion.

Defensively, yeah, the Patriots should cower at the sight of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Cris Collinsworth’s MVP Antonio Brown. But how much more can Bell deliver than Kenyan Drake (193 all-purpose yards) managed in Miami? If Bill Belichick is double and triple-covering Brown, is JuJu Smith-Schuster really going to become the necessary focal point? Roethlisberger is just 3-5 during the regular season against New England.

Now combine all that with the fact that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has been licking chops for this game since late last month, and Belichick might as well just refer to Page 456 in the gameplay manual, hand it to Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, and go belly-up at Cisco for the rest of the week. See you Sunday, fellas.

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Fireworks were promised on Sunday. The winner gets to sit in charge of the conference, no matter what the Bills, Jets, Texans, or Browns think that they can actually have to do about it.

“Pittsburgh is schematically quite a bit different than Miami, so we can’t dwell on the Miami game,” Belichick said. “Pittsburgh is a great team. They have their way of doing things and their schemes that they run and we’ll have to start preparing for those, but there could be, as always, some carryover if you show them that you’re vulnerable to a certain type of play or problem that if you don’t get that fixed you’ll see again the following week.”

It hasn’t been an easy avenue for the Steelers to get here, coming off nail-biters in recent weeks against the Ravens, Colts, Bengals, and Packers. They have to be better against the Patriots, who just have to be less horrific than they were against the Dolphins.

Be Less Terrible. Only the Patriots can ride such a mantra effectively toward the postseason.