Patriots knocked back a notch

CLEVELAND -- Football losses often fall into one of two categories.

There's the painful loss, which is when a team plays well enough to win but doesn't produce the desired result. And there's the we-didn't-deserve-it loss when a team simply bombs.

The New England Patriots experienced the latter Sunday when they were outclassed -- on the field and on the coaching sidelines -- by the Cleveland Browns in a surprising 34-14 beatdown. After a week in which the Patriots were lauded by some analysts as the best team in the NFL, they played like one of the worst in a performance so putrid, linebacker Jerod Mayo called it an "awakening."

This "awakening" served as a reminder of how fragile life can be in the NFL. The Patriots had been rolling, winners of five straight. Now they are bruised and badly beaten, looking vulnerable as they head into next Sunday night's game in Pittsburgh against the always-physical Steelers.

It can change that quickly.

Defensive lineman Vince Wilfork saw it coming in the days leading up to the game when the Patriots looked sloppy on the practice field. On Friday, which is usually a clean-up day, players were on the field for nearly three hours.

"It started with practice -- a crappy week of practice, you play crappy," said a disgusted Wilfork, who takes pride in anchoring the team's run defense, a unit that was gashed for 230 yards by the Browns. "This was one of the weeks where the practices didn't go as we planned."

Wilfork had been hopeful that the Patriots would overcome those doldrums, but it quickly became clear this wasn't their day -- whether it was the defense getting pushed around, special teams making critical mistakes or the offense continuing to sputter or turning the ball over in key spots.

Up to this point in the season, the Patriots had proven to be a resilient team that rose up in critical situations, with young players performing beyond their years. That team didn't show up in Cleveland.

Quarterback Tom Brady was more accurate with his postgame comments than he was with some of his passes, saying, "If we play the way we played today, we're not going to beat anybody."

It was that ugly, but at the same time, it's a showing that is the exception rather than the norm so far this season.

Perhaps with that in mind, this was a time when coach Bill Belichick and his players allowed themselves to step back and look at the big picture, which is usually a no-no. The Patriots pride themselves on a week-to-week focus, but when you get beaten in every facet, and outcoached in every facet, concessions can be made.

"We're a better team than we showed today, but we weren't [the better team] today," Belichick said.

It was a bit out of character to hear Belichick lighten the whip on his team after such an uninspiring performance, almost to the point that one wondered if he saw it coming -- perhaps Patriots players were reading too many of their own press clippings -- and he felt the result might serve as the "awakening" his team needed.

Veteran tight end Alge Crumpler seemed to be adopting that line of thinking.

"Sometimes it takes a butt-whupping for the message to get across," he said, after expressing his belief that the Patriots will bounce back.

"I've been through every situation. I've seen selfishness destroy teams and I've seen unselfishness create an overachieving team," Crumpler said. "I like what we have in this locker room under any circumstances. I like the way the guys work and I like the way we believe in each other, and I like the way we play when we're out there on Sunday.

"I just wish that we would have got off to a better start, as we preach every single week. This one finally caught up to us, this particular game. We will watch each one of the plays a lot, and then wash our hands of it and move on."

They'll need some extra soap. This one was that bad.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.