FOXBORO -- All hope is not lost.
Yes, Rob Gronkowski appears to be lost for the season with a right knee injury that was described by Browns players on the scene Sunday as "gruesome."
Yes, Tom Brady's security blanket for the last three seasons will end this season the way he began it -- on the sideline.
Yes, the Patriots' best red zone threat likely won't take the field again until 2014.
If we have learned nothing else from his time as quarterback of the Patriots, with Tom Brady in charge no mountain is too big to climb, even with his favorite target on the sideline.
Asked about the loss of Gronkowski, Danny Amendola said Sunday, "We've got his back." Well, no one has Gronk's back more than Brady, and this is the time when Tom Terrific needs to show it the most.
"It hurts to see any of those guys go down," Brady said. "Certainly with Gronk, and 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. We're with him. We support him."
This is the same Brady-led team that started 4-0 without Gronkowski as names like Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson picked up the slack. This is the same team that had its chances in Cincinnati and lost 13-6. This is the same team that has a very underrated defense all season. And this is the same team that has had the best quarterback of his generation in charge all the while.
Indeed, all hope is not lost.
If you look closely at what Brady did in the final 16 minutes of Sunday's latest miracle, you'll get some insight to how the Patriots figure to compensate for the loss of Gronk, who had his right knee shredded midway through the third quarter.
The Patriots were down 19-3. Josh Gordon had just lit up the Patriots on an 80-yard pitch-and-catch from Jason Campbell.
With no Gronk to turn to, what does Brady do?
He goes to Shane Vereen on a 50-yard strike down the deep left of Cleveland's secondary. He then finds Vereen over the middle for 16. He then calls Vereen's number up the middle for the final six yards. That was simple -- and fast. The Patriots went 72 yards in 79 seconds.
With New England down 26-14 with 2:39 left and no Gronk, many at Gillette figured it was time to head to the exits. After all, Brady can pull off just so many miracles, especially without his top target, right?
On the drive that led to the touchdown that brought the Patriots to within 26-21, Brady went exclusively to Vereen and Julian Edelman. Vereen had his number called six times on a mix of running and passing calls. Edelman had his number called on the other five of an 11-play drive that took just 98 seconds to march 82 yards, capped off by the 2-yard strike to Edelman in the back of the end zone.
"Personally, I was [both] catching the ball and I dropped a couple," Edelman said. "I can't speak for anyone else, but that's one thing that I had to do. The team, we were just staying focused, and we've got to play out the situations. The defense made a stop at the end and the special teams got the onside kick. It was good complementary, situational football at the end of the game.
"It's unfortunate that we had to take it back to the end of the game again but it was good to get the 'W.' We practice those situations all the time and guys are calm in the huddle and hungry to make a play. Our leader, Tommy, is pretty calm, cool, and collected, and we go with the flow of what we have to do to execute. Thank goodness we were able to do that at the end of the game, but we definitely have to get better."
The point is -- as Brady himself told Dennis & Callahan on Monday morning -- the Patriots are going to have to "shift" their focus on offense.
The first option can't be Rob Gronkowski anymore. They're going to have to get creative in the red zone, and that starts with Brady.
Take what the quarterback called on the first play after the pass interference in the end zone with 35 seconds left. In a red zone situation ideally suited for Gronkowski, the quarterback went with a rollout to the right.
It was a "West Coast" type of look you don't often see from Brady. Seeing the Browns playing man-to-man defense, Brady raced out from his shotgun formation and fired a Joe Montana-esque strike to Amendola in the right front corner of the end zone.
"It's a play we work on every day in practice, actually," Amendola said. "They manned it up, and we did a good job of executing. It was a good play.
"We found ourselves behind, and all we wanted to do was focus on executing the plays at hand, and one play at a time, and that's all you can do at that time. You try to make as many plays as you can, try to stack them up and put a drive together."
This offense still has weapons, more than in 2009 when the Patriots lost Wes Welker in the season finale in Houston and were smoked by Baltimore in the playoffs. It has Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. It has rookies Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce -- and Aaron Dobson if his left foot heals. It has Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount. But most of all, it has Tom Brady calling signals.
That's the bottom line. Now is the time for Brady to prove once again that as long as he is standing behind center, this Patriots team has the wherewithal to go to the Super Bowl again. In 2006, the Brady-led Patriots were 30 minutes from taking a group of receivers led by Troy Brown, Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell to the Super Bowl. It can be done.
All that being said, the Patriots and Brady have got to find a way to stop sleepwalking through the first 30 minutes of the game.
Brady said after Sunday's game that the Patriots aren't trying to spot lesser teams big leads or any leads at all, for that matter. But that's not the point. Brady knows it. Bill Belichick knows it. Maybe they need to start the game by spotting the other team 14 points on the scoreboard. Maybe they need Belichick to address the team before the game and announce, "We're down 17-0." Or maybe, and more realistically, the Patriots need to go with a more urgent short-passing, hurry-up attack to start the game and find a way to move down the field on their first drive.
With road games at Miami and Baltimore in the next two Sundays, the Patriots better find a way to get Vereen and Edelman involved earlier. Vereen was targeted three times in the first half, with two catches. Edelman was targeted twice. Yes, it's hindsight, but the two most productive players after Rob Gronkowski were targeted a total of five times with two catches in the opening 30 minutes. No doubt, Josh McDaniels and Belichick are keenly aware of this and likely now will be forced to make sure that doesn't happen again.
"We got booed at halftime," Brady told D&C. "We've just got such high expectations for our team, and people aren't satisfied with anything less than our best every single game. It's just the way it is around here. We're just trying to go out there and give our best, and whoever's out there we're going to try to make the plays to win the game. But it's a tough league. You sustain injuries. We're trying to find ways to make different combinations work.
"We're 10-3, for God's sake. It hasn't been all bad this year. There's been a few decent things in there."
More than decent, it's been downright amazing how the Patriots have won 10 games with all the injuries on both sides of the ball. But Brady, of all people, knows now is the time to improve. No more 30-minute rescue efforts. No more praying that an opposing player will get in the way of his own punt returner. No more hoping that an opposing player will touch an onside kick before it goes 10 yards.
There's only so many horseshoes one can pull out of their you-know-what.