Gronkowski's 2013 season ended last Sunday when Cleveland safety T.J. Ward took out the ACL in his right knee. It will be the third postseason in a row that the Patriots will either be playing with no Rob Gronkowski or a limited Gronk.
Following the 2011 regular season, Gronkowski suffered a high ankle sprain in the playoffs. He returned for the Super Bowl, but was a non-factor. He had a chance at a career-defining catch of a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game, but his balky ankle limited his explosiveness towards the ball.
Gronkowski broke his forearm in Week 11 of the 2012 season. He would try to return later in the season, but re-injured his arm against Houston in the playoffs. The Patriots would lose to Baltimore in the next round.
So what will happen in 2013 now that Gronkowski is lost for the season with the torn ACL in his right knee? Despite the Patriots' 10-3 record, many have now written off New England as Super Bowl contenders.
"That's it. We've lost Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer, Tommy Kelly for the season. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson are hurt. Now Rob Gronkowski is gone. We're toast."
Those people are wrong.
The most encouraging characteristic of the 2013 Patriots has been their resiliency. They have responded to every injury with a "next man up" attitude. Undrafted rookie Joe Vellano did a respectable job filling in for Vincent Wilfork before hitting the rookie wall recently. Ditto for rookie sixth-round draft pick Chris Jones filling in for Tommy Kelly. Former sixth-round pick Will Svitek has done a great job filling in for Vollmer. The Patriots have had good luck with sixth-round picks if you haven't noticed.
Gronkowski's injury, however, has been viewed as the straw that broke the camel's back. The defense has sustained the brunt of the critical injuries, but the hope was that the offense, with Gronkowski, could outscore the opposition. Now, without Gronkowski, the Patriots offense is weakened.
"No way we can outscore Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the playoffs now."
Peyton Manning in September... or Peyton Manning in January?
No doubt about it-- the Patriots offense will not be the same. For the first six weeks of the season without Gronkowski, the Patriots offense ranked 17th in the NFL, scoring an average of 20.8 points per game.
In Gronkowski's final five full games with the Patriots, New England's offense came to life. They averaged 35.8 points per game-- the best in the NFL during that span.
In a sick way, I kind of liked the team better the first half of the season. Don't get me wrong-- I wish they would have had Gronkowski. That was still before Wilfork and Mayo got injured. Aqib Talib hadn't reinjured his hip yet and was looking like Ty Law, Mike Haynes, and Raymond Clayborne all rolled into one. Stevan Ridley hadn't started fumbling yet.
The team reminded me of the championship Patriots teams of 2001, 2003, and 2004. The defense looked top-ten caliber. Brady was spreading the ball around (remember the pre-Randy Moss Era dictum "Brady's favorite receiver is the open receiver"?). The offense was a little more run-oriented. Injuries, however, took a toll and made Gronkowski's return necessary.
Another aspect of their resiliency, besides overcoming devastating injuries, has been the team's never-say-die attitude. How else can you explain the unbelievable late comebacks against New Orleans, Denver, and Cleveland? How many fans clicked off their TVs or left their seats at Gillette during the fourth quarter (or earlier) of those games only to scramble to find a TV or radio in time to tune into the final heart-stopping moments? We could include the Carolina game in that list if not for a blown... ah, never mind.
The point is this team never quits. They overcome injuries. Gronkowski's injury does not preclude the Patriots from winning it all this year. Yes, it makes it harder, but, by no means, impossible.
Here's my list of the four players (in this particular order) the Patriots can ill afford to lose at this point: Aqib Talib, Tom Brady, Devin McCourty, or Shane Vereen. If any one of those four go down, I am ready to concede this season.
Yes, I list Talib ahead of Brady. If Talib goes down, it won't matter how good Brady is (remember-- with no Gronkowski). If Talib goes down, season's over.
I was never that concerned when Wilfork went down. I was only a slightly bit more concerned when Mayo went down. The fact of the matter is the NFL is a passing league. Wilfork and Mayo are run stoppers. The Patriots need their two best secondary men-- Talib and McCourty -- to stay healthy.
If those two stay healthy, Tom Brady has a chance to outscore anybody. He will need Shane Vereen to pick up the slack, as he has done. Vereen has filled in as the third down back vacated by Danny Woodhead. He has helped fill the void of Welker by being Brady's go-to guy when the Patriots need a first down. He has also filled the void at wide receiver by catching numerous go-routes and fades down the sidelines. Vereen's versatility is unmatched on the Patriots offense.
Julian Edelman is close to making this list of players who are indispensable. Throughout the peaks and valleys of the season, Edelman has been the one constant. He has been an absolute rock. Surprisingly, he has stayed healthy all year << knocks on wood >>. He has come through when the Patriots needed him most-- and when Brady needed him most. Even still, if Edelman goes down, the Patriots still have Danny Amendola... and Vereen.
The Patriots can play with anybody. Home field advantage will be huge, of course. And if the Patriots win their final three games, they will be the top seed in the AFC. Nobody plays better in the cold weather and raw elements than Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
So bring on Peyton Manning. He does not scare me outdoors in January. To be honest, I am much more worried about Cincinnati and Baltimore. Their physicality scares me. If history teaches us anything, it is that physical teams beat the Patriots in the playoffs.
But if this season has taught us anything, it is don't ever count out the 2013 Patriots. One thing seems for sure-- they will keep us on the edge of our seats until we raise our hands in victory or bow our head in final defeat.