Leave it to the face of the franchise to put it better than anyone else could.
“No one feels sorry for the Patriots,” Tom Brady said following a thrilling win over the Browns on Sunday that also featured a devastating season-ending right knee injury to his teammate, two-time All-Pro Rob Gronkowski. “I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots.”
Spoken like a likely future Hall of Famer who understands the public perception.
Since the quarterback and head coach Bill Belichick teamed up in 2001, the Pats have captured three championships and advanced to two others, they hold 10 AFC East titles with an 11th on the way, and they’ve won anywhere from 10 to 16 regular season games on all but one occasion (9 in 2002).
Sadly, at least for New England fans, the organization’s hopes of hoisting a fourth Lombardi Trophy under the confetti in Super Bowl XLVIII were carted off the field right along with Gronkowski after he endured ACL and MCL tears, as well as a slight concussion.
Bernard Pollard is Enemy No. 1 in these parts when it comes to knocking Patriots superstars out of commission, but T.J. Ward was the man to deliver the blow this time around. It was a legal but excruciating hit to Gronkowski and one that could cost the tight end between eight and 12 months in recovery once he undergoes his seventh major surgery since last year.
This is the third straight season the 24-year-old has had a campaign cut short by injuries, dating back to when an ankle sprain effectively made him a decoy in the Patriots-Giants Super Bowl, Part Deux. That was followed by last postseason’s forearm-crunching showdown with the Texans. In the offseason, back troubles were added to the equation.
It’s been an overwhelming load but, for the team, it’s much worse.
Short of Brady, Gronkowski was the one guy the Pats could not afford to lose. His mates can insist upon a next-man-up mentality but, in truth, they know he’s irreplaceable.
Michael Hoomanwanui (out the last three weeks with a knee injury), Matthew Mulligan, D.J. Williams, and even fullback James Develin are no Rob Gronkowski. This season, they’ve combined for 192 yards and one touchdown on 16 receptions, compared to Gronkowski’s 39 catches for 592 yards and four scores in only seven games.
The Patriots have been down this road multiple times already this season. Ideal alternatives to Vince Wilfork, Jerrod Mayo, Tommy Kelly, and Sebastian Vollmer – all out for the year, as well – were nowhere to be found.
Without the fourth-year Gronkowski, the Patriots lose stability and efficiency. He impacted all elements of his club’s offense and his presence alleviated the pressure for everyone on the field, especially the young receivers who have been in and out of the lineup on account of their own ailments. Aaron Dobson (foot) and Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), who each missed the showdown with Cleveland with injuries, have amassed a collective 67 catches for 958 yards and eight TD’s.
From a game-planning perspective, Gronkowski’s size, speed, physicality, and versatility gave opposing coaches fits. It was understood that he was Brady’s preferred target, which regularly opened up the likes of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and, more recently, Shane Vereen, who has proven to be more dynamic in limited action than anyone could have anticipated. Along with those men, the rookies will again have to pick up some slack.
As a run-blocker, Gronkowski created holes on the ground and his absence will make the lives of Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, et al, even more challenging because they’ll have less room to travel. As it is, Ridley has shown very few flashes of his 2012 success.
Absent Gronkowski, the Patriots are not just a different team. They are a worse team. Brady noted that the Pats will have to find a different formula for success. Three-and-four-receiver sets will likely be the new norm, just as two tight-end sets may become a thing of the past.
The numbers don’t lie.
Over the next seven games, including the tight end’s season-finale last weekend, the Patriots scored 32 points a contest (to vault from 22d in the NFL in scoring to 5th) and succeeded in 68.8 percent of their red zone chances (22-for-32) as the health-challenged defense faltered and grew increasingly unreliable.
That’s the other problem. The defense has regressed and the offense is about to do the same.
Since Oct. 13, the stoppers have been anything but as opposing teams have scored 27.1 points per game after a 14-point average prior. Jason Campbell just guided Cleveland to 26 points on nearly 500 total yards. The Browns entered the matchup with the league’s 27th-ranked offense.
With an inconsistently effective Aqib Talib, once playing like a Pro Bowler before a hip issue resurfaced, leading a secondary littered with injuries, key run-stuffers like Wilfork and Kelly already gone, and Mayo done as well, relying on the defense to win the Pats a game in the postseason would make about as much sense as expecting Ridley to never drop another ball.
A healthy Gronkowski in tow, the Patriots were viewed as a contender in a wide-open AFC. But, now with three games left, what guarantee is there that they’ll hang onto an opening-round bye? Two of those remaining games are in Baltimore and Miami, both homes to some past New England troubles.
Even if they do and achieve a home game in the divisional round, the Pats have proven in a short time that they’re just as capable of beating a good team as losing to a bad one. Given their flawless 7-0 home mark, suppose they move on to the conference title game? In all likelihood that will take place in Denver.
That would present a battle of two poor defenses and two of the all-time great quarterbacks, yet only one remaining high-octane offense. Peyton Manning has certainly fallen more than a time or two in his playoff career and his record is spotty in crummy weather, but he’s also won a Super Bowl and has a tremendous supporting cast. The Patriots won’t be able to overcome a 24-point deficit or win another shootout against Manning’s deep arsenal of weapons on their turf.
How about the Bengals? Andy Dalton is tougher to read than Sanskrit and, even on his best day, he’s no Brady. Of course, Dalton has A.J. Green and Brady has … Edelman.
The Pats' best hope is getting off to stronger starts – no easy task when you’re depleted on both sides of the ball. Though they’ve won 10 of 13 games, they’ve trailed in 11, including five of the last six at halftime. In fact, in those six outings, they have only scored 23 of their 197 total points in the opening 30 minutes.
It’s a dangerous way to live, particularly in the playoffs. Then again, we probably shouldn’t expect anyone to feel sorry for the Patriots.
Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman
The author is solely responsible for the content.
About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
Send Adam Kaufman an email.