Patriots Have Lost Gronkowski, but Not Their Firepower
Tom Brady, right, will certainly miss Rob Gronkowski for a few weeks, but he has plenty more weapons.By the time Tom Brady did his weekly early-morning radio appearance in Boston on Monday, the reality of the balance sheet from the New England Patriots’ 59-24 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts had set in.
On the plus side, the Patriots had their most balanced, all-around performance of the season, scoring on special teams, offense and defense. But it is the cost that now hangs over the Patriots, and perhaps for the rest of the regular season. On the final extra-point conversion, tight end Rob Gronkowski broke his left forearm. He had surgery Monday, though the injury is not expected to end his season.“He’s such a great player,” Brady said on the radio station WEEI, adding that it stinks for the Patriots, “but it’s part of the game.”
It can be debated why Gronkowski was in to block on a garbage time extra point — and even more why the Patriots still had Brady in, and throwing, with less than six minutes to go in a game they already led by 28 points — but the end result is this: The Patriots could play the rest of the regular season without their second-best offensive player, trailing only Brady, and certainly their most versatile.“We have some flexibility in what we do,” Brady said. “We try to play to the strengths of our players.”As spectacular as Gronkowski is — and as much cultish devotion as he inspires among fans — his injury is not devastating for the Patriots, certainly not as catastrophic as the high ankle sprain that hampered him in last season’s Super Bowl.If Gronkowski misses four to six weeks, it is possible he will not play again until the playoffs. Barring a monumental and entirely unexpected collapse, the Patriots will win the A.F.C. East, which they lead by three games over a faltering field, with a Thanksgiving night game against the Jets the first chance to see the adjustments New England will have to make.
The Patriots (7-3), then, are mostly playing for seeding and a first-round bye, and they would have to move ahead of the Baltimore Ravens (8-2) or the Houston Texans (9-1), while holding off the Denver Broncos (7-3), to get that. As the N.F.L. has already proven, anything can happen this season — you definitely predicted Jacksonville taking Houston to overtime Sunday, right? — but the Patriots will need help to overtake them. After the Jets, the Patriots have games remaining against Houston and the San Francisco 49ers, among others.Still, the Jets and subsequent Patriots opponents are obviously catching a huge break with Gronkowski out. Gronkowski plays nearly all of the Patriots’ offensive snaps. He presents unique and terrifying matching problems — just ask the Colts, who tried to cover him for part of Sunday afternoon with a linebacker, to the tune of seven receptions for 137 yards — and is a particular threat in the red zone. Gronkowski scored twice against the Colts and has 37 touchdowns in his first three seasons, wide receiver-like numbers that lead the N.F.L. in that period.
When the Jets and the Patriots played this season, a 29-26 New England win in overtime, Gronkowski had 6 receptions for 78 yards and 2 touchdowns. Last November against the Jets, he had 8 receptions for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns.So now what do the Jets worry about? Pretty much everything else.Remember when Patriots Coach Bill Belichick cornered the market on tight ends and everybody joked that perhaps he was working on a four tight-end set? Laugh no more. The Patriots may have their other superb tight end, Aaron Hernandez, whose ankle injury has kept him mostly off the field since September. Hernandez is a superb receiver, with nifty open-field moves, too, but is not the blocker that Gronkowski is. The veteran Daniel Fells can block, but not catch as well. Visanthe Shiancoe is known as a receiver. None of them us the total package that Gronkowski is, but none of them needs to be. The Patriots are famed for playing game-plan specific football; they change identity depending on their personnel and how it matches up with their opponents.
Early in the season it looked as if the Patriots were phasing Wes Welker out of the offense. They featured Brandon Lloyd for a few weeks, then Welker re-emerged. On Sunday, Julian Edelman had a breakout day with seven targets and five receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown as part of a day in which he also rushed for 47 yards and had two punt returns for 117 yards and a touchdown. Brady was, well, Brady, throwing as well as he has all season, completing 24 of 35 passes for 331 yards and 3 touchdowns. Even Gronk-less, the offense produces absurd fireworks.The Jets, of course, are a different opponent. They do not possess great downfield receiving threats, and Mark Sanchez is not the passer, or the scrambler, Luck is. If the Patriots get as much pressure on Sanchez as they did on Luck, that would be ugly. Still, given Sanchez’s well-documented struggles, he has played surprisingly well against the Patriots. Earlier this season, he completed 28 of 41 passes for 328 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Sanchez is completing 55 percent of his passes this season, but in that overtime loss in Foxborough, he completed 68.3 percent, his third best this season. Go figure.
Last year, the Jets lost both games with the Patriots and Sanchez’s performance was mixed (16 of 26, 61.5 percent, for 166 yards and 2 touchdowns; 20 of 39, 51.3 percent, for 306 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions). And of course, in 2010, Sanchez and the Jets beat the Patriots twice, including in the playoffs when he threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions.Everyone knows this Jets team is far different from the one that went to the A.F.C. championship game twice and, despite the season-long shakiness of the Patriots’ secondary — which played much better against the Colts — it is hard to imagine the Jets have the weapons to pass their way to a victory Thursday. The formula is likely to be simple: try to run to control the clock, keep Brady off the field, keep the score low, and maybe get a few turnovers and take a few chances. The Jets simply cannot let the Patriots score into the 30s — they don’t have the firepower to keep up. The Jets, essentially, have to play almost perfectly. They can’t afford turnovers that give Brady extra possessions, and they can’t afford for their own offense to have too many three-and-outs.“The Jets have to slow the game down, and hold the Patriots to field goals,” said Michael Lombardi, the NFL Network analyst who was in Belichick’s personnel department in Cleveland. “They have to play good red-zone defense and try to keep the game in the 20s and have the ball at the end of the game to win the game. They can’t let the Patriots have the ball at the end with a chance to win.”
Gronk or no Gronk, that is a game the Jets — and most Patriots opponents — would not win.