By Joe Burris, Globe Staff | November 1, 2004

PITTSBURGH -- Tom Brady got the Patriots off to their usual start yesterday. The quarterback advanced New England steadily downfield on its first drive of the game, and though the drive ended with an Adam Vinatieri 43-yard field goal with 11:39 left in the first quarter, it marked the 15th straight game in which the Patriots scored first.

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Yet the Patriots repeatedly have insisted that you can't base many conclusions on who scores first, and yesterday proved them correct.

How decisively did fortune change for Brady & Co.? Consider that with 13 seconds left in the quarter, Brady had a pass intercepted by cornerback Deshea Townsend and returned 39 yards for a touchdown to put Pittsburgh ahead, 21-3, marking the first time the Patriots had allowed 21 points in a quarter since the third quarter against Chicago Nov. 10, 2002.

The interception also marked the second time in as many drives that the Patriots lined up in an empty-backfield set, and the second time it resulted in a turnover that led to a touchdown.

On the first play of the previous drive, Brady fumbled while being sacked by linebacker Joey Porter. Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen recovered. Five plays later, Pittsburgh scored on a 4-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to wide receiver Plaxico Burress to put the Steelers ahead, 14-3.

"That was the last empty backfield you saw, 0 for 2," said Brady, who tried in vain to lead a team minus its leading rusher, Corey Dillon, who missed the game because of a thigh injury. Brady said, however, that even with Dillon in the lineup, the Patriots would have had their hands full.

"I think we had a game plan . . . and we just didn't execute the game plan," he said. "No matter if Corey's in there or if Corey's not in there, we still expect to go out there and play. Corey didn't force me to fumble that ball. You have to go with the guys you've got, try to run the ball and take advantage of throwing the ball.

"We just didn't play the way we're capable," added Brady. "When you don't play the way you're capable against a good team, you lose."

Brady's performance underscores the point that as he goes, so does New England. Yesterday, he completed 25 of 43 passes for 271 yards and two touchdowns but was intercepted twice and sacked four times for 28 yards.

The interception that was returned by Townsend marked the first time the Patriots had allowed a defensive touchdown since the 2003 season opener, when Buffalo's Sam Adams returned an interception 37 yards for a score in the Bills' 31-0 triumph. Those miscues, and a balanced Steelers offense, led to the Patriots' first defeat in 22 games.

"I think the feeling is we have to get back to winning football, playing well and playing smart and not turning the ball over, not taking sacks, not throwing interceptions, not fumbling the ball," said Brady about the team's first defeat since a 20-17 loss to the Redskins Sept. 28 of last year.

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"Whether we win or lose, it's the same evaluation, what you do wrong and what you do right," Brady said. "We made too many bad plays early in the game and we just didn't overcome them. This team is disappointed as you think it would be. At the same time, it's one week, and we have another chance next week, and that's the great thing about playing a 16-game schedule."

As much as the Patriots struggled to start the game, they cut the deficit to 24-10 on their best drive of the first half, as Brady drove New England 56 yards in seven plays and capped it with a 2-yard pass to David Givens with 42 seconds left in the second quarter.

Brady completed five of six passes for 56 yards on the drive.

Because Pittsburgh got the ball to start the game, New England would have the ball to start the second half, and Brady said after the late touchdown the team was confident going into the locker room at halftime. "We said, `God, we can make it a one-score game', and that's what we wanted to do," he said.

Instead, the start of the second half was similar to much of the first. On the first play from scrimmage, Brady tossed the ball to running back Kevin Faulk, who was hit 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage by Porter and fumbled. The ball was recovered by defensive end Aaron Smith. Four plays later, Pittsburgh scored on a 2-yard run by Jerome Bettis.

The Patriots' third turnover to result in a Steeler touchdown all but nullified their chances of a comeback.

"Kevin was trying to make some guys miss, someone got his hand on the ball, and they scored," said Brady. "It makes it tough. It was a good play by them and I'm sure Kevin would have liked something different to happen, just as we all do when we're carrying the ball and you've got decisions to make and you're running through traffic."

Brady emphasized that the Patriots will face an equally tough test next week, when they travel to St. Louis to face the Rams. "I think everyone is going to put everything we've got, just as we do every week, into practice, and go out there and fight again," he said.

Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.