BOSTON—The Patriots organization is reeling this week following their narrow 34-17 victory over the lowly Browns, taking stock of their game-planning methods, philosophy, and indeed their entire season in the aftermath of a game in which they gained barely more than 500 total yards, came within seconds of failing to cover the spread, and scored only twice as much as their opponent.
"I think it's too early to call the season a failure," said visibly shaken Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who was called into the office of owner Robert Kraft Monday morning and officially placed on probation in light of the insufficiently dominant victory. "I wish to extend my deepest apologies to the Patriots fans and ask them to continue supporting the players and the team. All the blame for Sunday's victory has to lie with me."
Practices have been subdued and intense this week as players struggle to adjust offensive and defensive schemes that were unable to put the Browns away until late in the first quarter, produced a scant 4.4 yards per rush—only 0.6 yards over the league average—and had to rely on two interceptions and a fumble recovery to finally go up by more than 10 points.
"I have to take my share of the blame," said quarterback Tom Brady, who has already drawn moderate criticism this season for throwing only three touchdowns in each of the Patriots' games so far. "With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, I missed [tight end] Kyle [Brady] in the end zone. Any other greatest quarterback makes that touchdown pass and we win by 24—not outstanding, but at least it would have given us some pride in the locker room. As it was, we couldn't look each other in the eye."
Although Belichick has refused to discuss personnel moves, Patriots insiders say that benching Brady for next week's game against undefeated Dallas was a definite possibility. All-pro tight end Ben Watson, who only scored twice against the Browns and struggled to produce a 106-yard performance, will almost certainly lose his starting job. Backup running back Samuel Morris managed only 102 yards on 21 carries and is generally acknowledged to be finished in the NFL. And wideout Randy Moss, held to only 49 yards, is almost certain to be traded by next week.
"It was probably my worst game as a pro," said linebacker Junior Seau, who was almost invisible for the whole game, only able to intercept a total of two Derek Anderson passes all game and none in the second half. "Not that I was alone out there. Randall [Gay] only recovered one fumble for a touchdown. And I hate to call out the other unit, but there were a couple of times when the offensive line almost gave up their fourth sack of the season."
"I've tried so hard to build a culture of winning here, and this is the kind of win we get," Belichick said at a post-practice press conference Wednesday. "This team has so much wrong with it, it's hard to believe we've managed to only lose zero games."