FOXBORO -- For a Patriots team that has had to deal with wave after wave of challenges through the first 13 games, what happened Sunday afternoon might very well be the breaking point.
When tight end Rob Gronkowski disappeared up the runway near the Gillette Stadium lighthouse on a medical cart midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s remarkable 27-26 victory over the Browns, the Patriots lost an unprecedented amount of offensive oomph, and gave rise to questions as to whether or not New England could rise to meet yet another challenge.
“It hurts to see any of those guys go down, certainly with Gronk,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “We’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve got to just keep bouncing back
“No one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots.”
After sitting out the first six games of the season because of offseason surgeries on his forearm and back, the big fella was just starting to return to the same pre-injury form he flashed before going down last year -- entering Sunday’s game against the Browns, he had 27 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns over the previous four games.
His presence on the field opened things up underneath for smaller receivers like Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and it allowed the Patriots to run the ball with greater ease. In the five games since his return prior to Sunday, New England went from averaging 21 points per game to 33 points per game, and the red zone woes that had bedeviled the offense were gone when No. 87 returned to full strength -- the Patriots went from 41 percent in red zone touchdown efficiency to 68 percent.
But that all came to an end in the third quarter of Sunday’s win, when he was felled after a 21-yard pickup by Cleveland’s T.J. Ward, going down with what appeared to be a serious right knee injury. (It was hard not to notice it was in the same general neighborhood where he was taken down by Baltimore’s Bernard Pollard in the 2011 AFC title game.) After lying on the turf for roughly five minutes, he was helped onto the cart by teammate and fellow tight end Matthew Mulligan. Giving a thumbs up to the crowd, he disappeared up the runway with Dr. Thomas Gill.
Reports indicate that an MRI will be performed on Monday, and he could be out for the rest of the season. If that’s the case, it would be the latest challenge for a team that’s faced a ridiculous run of bad luck when it comes to season-ending injuries to key players, already costing them Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Sebastian Vollmer. According to noted salary cap guru Brian McIntrye, going into the weekend the Patriots had $23.19 million in salary on injured reserve, fourth in the league, and $24.62 million in cap dollars on IR, third in league.
While the Patriots have managed to overcome an epic run of injuries on the way to 10-3 and the No. 2 seed in the AFC, it’s at least worth asking if the loss of Gronkowski could simply be too much to overcome.
“We just take it one play at a time, one day at a time, one game at a time,” said coach Bill Belichick, who announced that Gronkowski was taken to the hospital for observation and evaluation on his injury. “Whatever it is, we’ll deal with whatever we have to deal with.”
If Gronkowski is lost for more than a few weeks, it obviously would have huge ramifications for the New England offense. He’s one of the best blocking tight ends in the league, and his work as a pass catcher is unparalleled. While more would be expected of the tight ends on the roster -- Michael Hoomanwanui and Matthew Mulligan -- in the same fashion that the Patriots couldn’t hope to replace Wilfork with one individual, they wouldn’t try to replace Gronkowski with one player.
Instead, in his place, they would have to lean heavily on several other offensive options, many of whom were colossal down the stretch against the Browns. Shane Vereen is evolving into the AFC’s answer to Darren Sproles -- he had 12 catches for 153 yards against Cleveland, setting a franchise mark for a running back when it comes to catches and receiving yards. Edelman was immense in the clutch and finished with six catches for 64 yards and a touchdown. Amendola had the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute to go. And LeGarrette Blount had eight carries for 42 yards.
And of course, they’ll need Brady to continue being Tom Brady. After a hideous first half (7-for-19, 95 yards, one interception), the quarterback was immense in the final few minutes Sunday, throwing his two touchdown passes in the last 61 seconds of action and finishing 32-for-52 for 418 yards.
In short? It will take a village to replace Gronkowski.
Fortunately for the Patriots, they have some experience in this area -- they were without him for the first six games of the season, and while it wasn’t always perfect, they did manage to come away with a 5-1 mark. There were fits and starts with some of the rookie receivers, and Vereen and Amendola struggled with injury through that period, but they still made it work.
But can they do it again with so much more at stake? This is a team that has displayed tremendous mental toughness over the course of the first 13 games. Sunday marked the team's 10th game this season that has been decided by a touchdown or less. New England has gone 7-3 in those games -- no Patriots team over the last decade has played as many games that were decided by seven points or fewer.
Along the way, they’ve managed to rebound from second-half deficits of 24, 14, 10 and four points on two occasions. Whether it’s been overcoming deficits, season-ending injuries to Pro Bowlers or some questionable work by the men in striped shirts, they have done a fantastic job meeting almost every challenge along the way.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater has been around the Patriots since 2008, which makes him one of the veterans in the New England locker room. He’s seen plenty of players come and go over the last six seasons. He believes that if there’s one team that can rise to meet this latest challenge, it might just be this one.
“We’ve been through a lot, and we’ve lost key guys. Key guys … it feels like every game,” Slater said. “We’ll just continue to pray for Rob, and as a team, we have to play for Rob, play for Vince, play for Jerod and play for Sebastian. All those guys who have gone down this year. We have to go out there and play for them because they want to be out there with us.
“The situations we’ve been in all year -- battling through injuries, losing two captains, having guys go down -- we’ve [responded],” Slater added. “It says a lot about the character of our football team. It says a lot about the way we’ve been coached and the way we’ve been prepared. What can you say? This has been a tough, resilient group. A young group, but they’ve learned to look adversity in the face and respond to the situation.”
How they respond to the latest situation will ultimately serve as the legacy of the 2013 Patriots.
Here are nine other things we learned about the Patriots on Sunday.
THEY WILL NEVER MAKE IT EASY
The Gronkowski injury put a damper on the remarkable comeback of the Patriots, who scored twice in the last 61 seconds to turn a 26-14 deficit into a 27-26 advantage, and then had to sweat out a last-second 58-yard field goal attempt from Billy Cundiff that fell a few yards short to come away with the win. It marked the seventh time a game has turned in the last minute of regulation this year -- Sunday’s victory joined wins over the Bills, Jets, Falcons and Saints, as well as losses to the Bengals and Panthers. (Two others went to overtime -- the win over the Broncos and loss to the Jets.) New England’s frantic finish made up for a pretty poor performance over the first 58 minutes by the offense, a stretch where the Patriots were unable to generate any sort of consistency. It remains to be seen if New England will be able to continue the crazy finishes down the stretch and into the postseason, but the character and mental toughness needed to survive so many close games certainly counts for something when you consider their place among the NFL elite.
SLOW STARTS STILL ARE AN ISSUE
Even after 13 games, there’s a lot we don’t know about the 2013 Patriots, and one of the reasons they remain so puzzling is their offensive inconsistency in the first half. Over the last five games, New England has been outscored over the first two quarters by a 67-34 margin, and that includes a 6-0 shutout after two quarters against the Browns. On Sunday, Patriots were unable to get much of anything going offensively -- their six first half possessions went punt, interception, punt, punt, punt, end of half. In all, New England ran three plays in Cleveland territory in the first half, as Brady went 7-for-19 for 95 yards and a pick over the first two quarters. (The best and most consistent offensive performer over the first two quarters was Blount, who had six carries for 36 yards in the first half Sunday.) New England can get away with that sort of early offensive sluggishness a team like Cleveland, but it’s not a sustainable model going into the postseason.
SHANE VEREEN IS A TRANSFORMATIVE PRESENCE
Vereen remains the most versatile, multidimensional offensive threat the Patriots have on their roster, and proved as much down the stretch against the Browns. He presence in the passing game was huge, as he came away with 12 catches (on a whopping 17 targets) for 153 yards, both of which were franchise records for a running back. (He added one rushing touchdown.) He helped move the sticks on several occasions, and was at his best on a 50-yard pass play with Brady at the end of the third quarter when he was able to beat his man deep and almost reach the end zone. (The 50-yarder tied for the fourth-longest reception of 2013, matching a 50-yard pickup by Gronkowski last week against the Texans.) As previously stated, Vereen almost certainly will be asked to shoulder more of the offensive burden going forward, but provided he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t handle the workload. He’s averaging 7.2 yards every time he touches the ball, and now is two carries away from being the third New England running back in the last decade to get at least 40 catches and 40 carries in a season.
AQIB TALIB HAS HIT A ROUGH PATCH
It’s debatable how much is on the shoulders of Talib and how much credit should be given to Josh Gordon as one of the best young playmakers in the league, but when you combine Talib’s performance Sunday against the Browns with what happened last week against the Texans, it appears he’s struggled a bit over the last two games. On Sunday, Talib spent much of the afternoon trailing Gordon, and had issues for a sizable chunk of the afternoon. (The defensive back was flagged for defensive holding twice and illegal use of hands once.) Gordon was slowed early -- he had three catches for 42 yards in the first half, and it appeared that there were a handful of times where he was open but not located by Campbell -- but broke out in the second half. The highlight of the afternoon for the youngster was a terrific catch-and-throw connection with Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell that went for 80 yards as he made a nice catch over the middle and took off toward the end zone. Talib tried to haul him down, but Gordon delivered a nasty stiff arm to create some separation on the way to the score. Gordon has gotten the better of several great corners this year, and you can add Talib to that list -- he ended with seven catches on 10 targets for 151 yards and a touchdown.
OVER HIS LAST FIVE GAMES, TOM BRADY HAS EXECUTED A 180 FROM HIS FIRST FIVE GAMES
Brady struggled mightily through the first five games of the season, completing 56.6 percent of his passes (in two of those games he threw for less than 200 yards), but he has been impressive over the last five games, going 147-for-216 (68 percent) for 1,861 yards, with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. As was the case through much of that stretch, Brady and the offense were sluggish early but impressive in the second half -- on Sunday against the Browns, he was a combined 25-for-33 for 323 yards and two touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter. He was at his best on the next-to-last scoring drive of the afternoon -- on that sequence, he engineered an 11-play, 82-yard sequence that took 1:38 and ended with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Edelman, who was crunched in the back of the end zone on the play but hung on. (On that sequence, Edelman accounted for 50 of the 82 receiving yards.)
THEY’RE EASING STEVAN RIDLEY BACK INTO THE GAME PLAN
Ridley, who sat last week against the Texans, was active against the Browns, and while he wasn’t an extensive part of the game plan, he finished with eight carries for 35 yards, including a nifty 12-yarder on a fourth-quarter scoring drive that helped set up Gostkowski’s 50-yard field goal. It was a small step back in the right direction for Ridley, who still has a ways to go before he’s back to where he needs to be. As a whole, the New England run game was mostly positive on the afternoon, coming away with 87 yards on 21 carries -- the third-lowest output of the season from a pure yardage standpoint. But the gradual return of Ridley and the continued work of Blount in a limited role was a good sign for a running game that is starting to come into sharper focus as the postseason nears.
STEPHEN GOSTKOWSKI CONTINUES TO HAVE A PRO BOWL YEAR
The kicker has been money all season long, and he was again on Sunday against the Browns. He connected on a 33-yard field goal to get the Patriots on the board in the third quarter, and added a 50-yarder later in the game (his fifth field goal this season from 50 yards or more). He also connected on his one extra-point attempt, put three of his six kickoffs into the end zone and executed a successful onside kick late in the fourth quarter. (It was the first time since Jan. 1, 1995, in an AFC playoff game the Patriots had recovered an onside kick. That also came against the Browns, who then were coached by Belichick.) It will be a struggle -- there are a lot of good kickers in the league this season, including New York’s Nick Folk, Seattle’s Steven Hauschka and Baltimore’s Justin Tucker -- but Gostkowski should get All-Pro consideration. As we argued here, he’s having every bit as good a regular season as Adam Vinatieri’s best year (2004), and his consistency in big moments over the course of the regular season certainly bodes well for more opportunities in similar moments in the postseason.
WHEN IT COMES TO THE RUN DEFENSE, IT WAS A SMALL STEP FORWARD
Understand this: The Browns running game entered the contest as one of the worst in the league, averaging 82.3 yards per game, 28th in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Patriots came into the contest the 31st-best team in the league in stopping the run at 138.2 yards per carry. And while the New England run defense didn’t re-invent the position on Sunday, the Patriots were able to hold the Cleveland running backs mostly in check -- 22 carries, 47 yards. The Browns were able to get 108 rush yards on 25 carries, with Gordon getting 34 on one carry and Campbell getting 27 on two carries. At first glance, it appeared the Patriots leaned heavily on young defensive tackle Sealver Siliga up front, utilizing him in place of veteran isaac Sopoaga, but regardless of personnel, the outcome represents a small victory for the New England run defense, which ultimately yielded more than 100 yards on the ground for the ninth consecutive game but managed to not get hurt in the process. The Patriots will be looking to build on that next week against the Dolphins.
JEROME BOGER AND HIS CREW MAKE EVERY PATRIOTS GAME MORE INTERESTING
The referee, who was at the center of the push-not-a-push situation at the end of the overtime loss to the Jets earlier this season, saw his crew at the center of another disputed late-game call Sunday. With the Patriots driving for what would be the winning touchdown and New England sitting on the Cleveland 30-yard line with 41 seconds left, Brady lofted a ball for Josh Boyce into the end zone. Boyce and defensive back Leon McFadden got tied up, and McFadden was whistled for pass interference. That put the ball on the 1-yard line, and the Patriots were able to convert one play later. The call drew the ire of several Cleveland players, as well as McFadden and coach Rob Chudzinski, both of whom said it wasn't pass interference.