The season is going to end the way it started for both Rob Gronkowski and the New England passing attack -- with the Pro Bowl tight end sidelined with a major injury and the Patriots offense searching for a way to produce without its most important player not named Tom Brady.
Gronkowski was knocked out of action in the third quarter of Sunday's eventual win over the Browns when a low hit on his right knee upended the playmaker and sent him to the locker room riding a cart. He was sent to the hospital for what Bill Belichick said was "observation and examination."
That reportedly revealed a torn ACL and MCL in Gronkowski's knee, ending his season immediately and sending him back to where he's spent so much of the last two years - on the surgery table and in the rehab process.
After sitting out the first six weeks of the season recovering from offseason forearm and back surgeries, Gronkowski had returned to action Oct. 20 and in a six-plus game span returned to his role as the most effective offensive player New England has. He caught 39 passes for 592 yards with four touchdowns.
More importantly a Patriots offense that was battling problems in the red zone, on third down conversions and lacked consistency, began to produce in the way that's come to be expected in New England. Brady led an attack that scored 27 or more points in six of seven games after having reached that mark just twice in the first six weeks. In the most recent five games Brady topped 300 yards four times and 400 yards twice. He had a passer rating of 91 or better in all five games after clearing that plateau just twice in the first six weeks.
There was no question that the man they call Gronk ignited the offense with both is production and the attention he drew from opposing defenses.
Now, as was the case for the first six weeks and to close out the postseason a year ago, Gronkowski is lost to injury.
With three weeks of regular season action left and the 10-3 Patriots leading the way at this point for at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the first-round bye, New England will have to undergo its third offensive identity change this season.
"It just shifts; you just have to find a different formula," Brady said Monday morning in his weekly interview with sports radio WEEI. "I think that's the important part. And Gronk provides a certain margin of error because of how talented a player he is, and the other guys play different roles for us."
According to Belichick, the Patriots will have to find a way to replace Gronkowski's unique talents and skills, much as the team has had to do losing Pro Bowl defenders Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to injured reserve earlier in the season.
"I think Rob is similar to the conversations we had with Jerod and Vince. I don't think too many teams have players of that caliber at any position to just put in another Rob Gronkowski or put in another Vince Wilfork or put in another Jerod Mayo," Belichick said. "Whoever is in there is going to have to fulfill some of those duties but it may expand to more people, like we ended up having to do offensively, using more four-receiver sets instead of three receivers and a tight end or something like that. Or it might result in the tight ends getting more plays, or some combination there. Some of that may change from game to game."
Maybe looking for a silver lining in an incredibly dark injury cloud, Belichick reference the experience the team gained having to battle each week earlier this year without it's Pro Bowl pass catcher.
"Obviously we've unfortunately had to play without Rob for games at the beginning of the season," Belichick said. "We've dealt with that already this year. I'd like to think there's going to be some carryover there, not only the first six weeks of the season but the entire training camp as well. That's the way we practiced and played most of the year, including the preseason games and that's what, 10 games? So, it was great to have him back and he was obviously a big contributor for us. One way or the other, we'll have to adjust to it."
That early season action included a lot of action for rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, both of whom missed Sunday's game against Cleveland with foot and hip injuries, respectively. It also resulted in Patriots attack that struggled mightily more often than not. And back then New England's defense was playing at a much higher level, but now injuries to Wilfork, Mayo, Tommy Kelly and an overall banged up secondary have depleted that side of the ball as well.
There is no way to sugarcoat things, a Patriots team that's already had seven of its 13 games decided by three points or less, including the last three, is likely to be in a fight for its life on a weekly basis leading up to and into the postseason.
Belichick clearly feels that his team has already displayed the type of resiliency this fall that should serve the group well with the battles it now faces moving forward with an undermanned roster.
"No question about it. Very tough minded and determined group that even though at times the deck has been stacked against us or it's been things that we've had to overcome, they haven't ever made any excuses or tried to back down from the challenge," Belichick raved. "They just try to meet it head-on with the best effort they can. Sometimes it's been good enough, sometimes it hasn't. The attitude, the ability to go out there and fight and persevere and deal with whatever the circumstances are and not really get too fazed by it, but just try to deal with it, has been very impressive by the entire team this year, especially with some young guys and newer faces on the team. Overall, they've all embraced whatever the opportunity is, even though it may not look too bright. They embrace the opportunity, try to go out there and make the best of it."
That's what the team will have to do once again without arguably the most unique, irreplaceable weapon in the NFL. Gronkowski is done for the year, but the Patriots want to prove that the same can't be said of the team's championship hopes.
"No one feels sorry for the Patriots," Brady said. "I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don't think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots."
Shane Vereen won't even admit, nor should he as a competitor, that the Patriots chances are hampered by the Gronkowski loss.
"No, you can't think that way," Vereen said.
--TE Rob Gronkowski reportedly tore both the ACL and the MCL in his right knee on a hit by Browns safety T.J. Ward in the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Browns. It's just the latest blow to the big tight end's health. Gronkowski missed his final season at Arizon fter back surgery before being drafted in the second round in 2010 by the Patriots. He suffered an ankle injury in the AFC title game after the 2011 season that had him hobbling around in the Super Bowl in Indy. Last year he battled through a back injury during the season and then broke his left forearm in November. He returned, but broke the forearm a second time, in a different place, against the Texans in the playoffs. He underwent multiple forearm surgeries this offseason, including those dealing with an infection, as well as a back surgery this summer.
Add it all up and it's been a tough couple years for the physically gifted but injury prone tight end.
"All injuries are different, and he's as tough a guy as there is," Tom Brady told WEEI radio of his favorite target. "And what he's been through the last really two years since he hurt his ankle in the postseason, and then to come back from that and deal with his back and his arm and to deal with that all season last year and all offseason, he's a tough guy and a tough kid.
"If there's one thing he has, it's mental toughness. He'll be back, regardless of when it is, better than ever."
--RB Stevan Ridley returned to reserve action against the Browns after being benched and watching his teammates from the sideline in street clothes in Houston a week earlier. Ridley had fumbled in three straight games before serving as a healthy scratch against the Texans. He returned with eight carries for 35 yards (4.4 avg.) as well as one reception for 2 yards against Cleveland. Most importantly, he did not fumble.
Bill Belichick was asked if Ridley's work in practice last week had earned the 2012 1,200-yard rusher a spot back on the game day roster.
"Stevan always practices hard. I don't think that's really an issue," Belichick said. "The decisions we make every game are really the same: what players, combination of players we feel like puts us in the most competitive situation. That encompasses a lot of things, including special teams and obviously offense and defense and depth and game plan and your opponent and everything else. We'll continue to make those decisions on a weekly basis. As you've seen, sometimes it's the same. It's a similar group of players and other times it changes. Sometimes that's injury related, sometimes it's related to other things. We'll just take it week by week."
It was certainly a positive step for Ridley to get back on the field and hand onto the football for a Patriots offense that will be continuing to find ways to produce heading toward January in light of the Rob Gronkowski injury.
--RB Shane Vereen had a huge day in the win over the Browns, one of the most productive catching the football by a running back in the NFL in the last decade. Vereen notched his first career 100-yard receiving day and became just the fourth back in the last 10 years to top 150 yards through the air. The third-year passing back caught 12 passes for 153 yards, both franchise records for a running back. When Rob Gronkowski left to injury in the third quarter, Vereen almost single handedly got his team back in the game. He hauled in a 50-yard catch and then another 16-yarder to set up his own 6-yard touchdown run. He actually was either the ball carrier, receiver or intended target on eight straight New England offensive snaps.
Vereen missed eight games while on injured reserve with a wrist injury, but since returning the passing back has caught eight or more passes in three of four games. He's seeing his role increase all the time and that should continue for an offense that remains a work in progress heading toward January.
"Helping the team win," Vereen said of his development. "I mean, if I had to catch the ball in order for us to win the game and make some plays throughout the year, then that's what, hopefully, I'll be able to do going forward. Really, it's all about the team and it's all about getting a victory."
--PK Stephen Gostkowski just might be New England's most consistent, productive player this season. He's won a number of games for the team, including Sunday against the Browns when he not only hit a 50-yard field goal in the fourth quarter but put forth a perfect slow rolling onside kick down the middle of the field that was recovered by teammate Kyle Arrington.
Gostkowski hit a pair of 53-yard field goals a week earlier to pull off the comeback victory in Cleveland. He's actually now hit 22 straight field goals in the fourth quarter and was the leading vote getter among fans at last check for the Pro Bowl.
But he says nothing he's done this year compares to how he felt on Sunday's onside kick.
"I've never been that jacked up after a game. I don't celebrate too much after field goals but when we get an onside kick, I was all over the place. I probably looked like an idiot out there," Gostkowski said with a big smile of the Patriots first onside kick recovery since 1995.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--DT Sealver Siliga made his first career start against the Browns, just a week after making his debut in a Patriots uniform in Houston. The veteran defensive tackle six tackles in the win over Cleveland.
--WR Austin Collie saw reserve action against the Browns, this just a couple days after re-signing with the team last week. Collie finished with one catch for 4 yards, a first-down reception.
--WR Josh Boyce made his second career start and saw his most significant playing time of the year in the win over the Browns. The fourth-round rookie finished with three catches for 49 yards and also drew the key 29-yard pass interference call in the end zone to set up the game winning touchdown with less than a minute to play.
--RB Brandon Bolden was an apparent healthy scratch against the Browns. The second-year runner had missed practice on Friday, but the absence was deemed to be not injury related.
--LB Steve Beauharnais, the rookie seventh-round pick, was a healthy scratch for the 10th time this season
--DE Jake Bequette, a second-year former third-round pick, was a healthy scratch for the seventh time this season.
--WR Aaron Dobson (foot) missed his second straight game. The rookie has not practiced the last two weeks.
--WR Kenbrell Thompkins (hip) was inactive against the Browns due to the injury suffered a week earlier in the win in Houston.
--TE Michael Hoomanawanui missed his third straight game with a knee injury, despite returning to practice on a limited basis last week.
--OL Marcus Cannon missed his second straight game with an ankle injury, having missed practice for the last two weeks.
--CB Alfonzo Dennard returned to action after sitting out the previous week's game in Houston with a knee injury. The second-year starter was reserve action, despite also missing two days of practice last week while making court appearances in Nebraska stemming from an OUI arrest this summer. Dennard actually left the field with an apparent left shoulder injury in the first half against Cleveland, and even retreated to the locker room, but returned to seemingly play his full reps in the second half of the win.
--TE Rob Gronkowski was carted off the field in the third quarter against the Browns with a serious knee injury. Gronkowski was taken to the hospital and has reportedly suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee that will end his season.
REPORT CARD VS. BROWNS
PASSING OFFENSE: B-MINUS -- The final numbers for Tom Brady and the passing attack were impressive, but it was a struggle to get to that production. Brady finished completing 32 of 52 passes for 418 yards with two touchdowns and one interception for a 91.7 passer rating. He was sacked four times, losing a fumble on one of those. He was hit six times. Brady has a passer rating of 0.0 after the first quarter and just 31.7 at halftime, trailing 6-0. But he got things going later in the third quarter and into the hectic fourth-quarter comeback. He spread the ball to 10 different targets, led by Shane Vereen's 12 catches for 153 yards. Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola caught his touchdowns 30 seconds apart with just a minute and under to play in the game, the latter the game-winner. Brady completed a pass of 20 yards or longer to six different players and made the plays needed with the game on the line, but it clearly wasn't one of the more consistent, fluid performances we've seen from him or his passing attack.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- New England's ground game was a lackluster but complementary part of the offense against Cleveland. The Patriots tallied 21 carries for 87 yards as a team with one touchdown. LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley each had eight carries for 42 and 35 yards, respectively. Vereen had the team's lone rushing score. The rushing yardage was balanced almost evenly from the first half to the second, but overall it wasn't the most impressive effort given that the passing game could have used a boost early on in this surprisingly difficult dogfight.
PASS DEFENSE: C-MINUS -- Josh Gordon came in as the hottest receiver in the game and added to his recent eye-opening production. The second-year star was matched up with Aqib Talib all day in what was a physical battle. Gordon finished with seven receptions for 151 yards, more than half coming on an 80-yard touchdown. It was the first one-on-one battle that Talib has really lost all season But Gordon wasn't the only problem, tight end Jordan Cameron was wide open all day to the tune of nine catches (on just nine targets) for 121 yards and a touchdown. Backup tight end Gary Barnridge had the Browns other touchdown catch on a 40-yard scamper. Veteran Jason Campbell returned from a concussion to complete 29 of 44 throws for 391 yards with the three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 116.8 passer rating. He was sacked just once and under very little pressure all day. New England secondary was as healthy as it's been in weeks, and yet put up a pretty bad performance. The lack of a pass rush from a very quiet Chandler Jones certainly didn't help.
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The Patriots had been struggling mightily on run defense. But aging Willis McGahee and the Browns were just what the doctor ordered for the ailing New England front. While Cleveland rushed for relatively impressive numbers with 25 carries for 108 yards (4.3 avg.), that included a pretty end around behind an unbalanced line for Gordon for 34 yards and two Campbell scrambles for 27 yards. Take out those plays and the Patriots front held the Cleveland running backs to just 47 yards on 22 attempts. McGahee had 14 carries for just 33 yards for a 2.4-yard average that was less than his dismal 2.8-yard average for the season. Sealver Siliga saw his first NFL start at defensive tackle and seemed to bring a bit more stout play to the front, while Dont'a Hightower had maybe his best game of the season with a game-high 11 tackles, including seven solos. For a unit that had been allowing yards on the ground in chunks in recent weeks this was a step in the right direction, even coming against unimpressive competition.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-MINUS - New England's win over the Browns came down to an onside kick, and Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien has to be pleased with the near perfect execution his team displayed to give Brady and the offense a chance to pull out the victory. Stephen Gostkowski put forth a slow roller up the middle that was touched by a Browns player just shy of 10 yards and recovered by Kyle Arrington. That gave New England the boost it needed to pull out the unlikely comeback win. Gostkowski also hit a 50-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter. Ryan Allen had a solid day punting, with a 40.2 net on his five kicks with three downed inside the 20. New England didn't do much in the return game that was held in check by impressive Cleveland coverage, but the onside kick success was enough to carry the day for the home squad in the kicking game.
COACHING: B-MINUS - Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels keep talking about getting off to better starts and improving first-half execution, but it's just not happening. That left the Patriots with a 6-0 deficit at halftime and down 26-14 with 2:39 to play. The hectic fourth-quarter comeback doesn't erase that poor play. New England's decision to match up Talib with Gordon didn't pay off and overall the Patriots were burned badly by Cleveland's only two weapons - Gordon and Cameron. Usually Belichick and Co. can take away top targets, but they failed in this one. The Patriots onside kick attempt to propel the comeback was perfectly devised and executed. And give credit to Belichick and Co. for keeping the team fighting even after the emotional loss of Gronkowski. But this coaching staff has its work cut out for it in the coming weeks heading toward the postseason, as despite a 10-3 record New England isn't exactly hitting the postseason firing on all cylinders.
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