When New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski began writhing on the ground and clutching his knee, it immediately brought back memories of another late-season game four years ago.
The flawed but playoff-bound Patriots were in Houston. Wide receiver Wes Welker, the offense’s most dependable playmaker, seemed to tweak his knee on the tangled Reliant Stadium turf. (In 2012, a former Texans punter sued over the turf.) Welker ended up tearing his ACL and MCL. He rode off in a cart and New England’s hopes of actually accomplishing anything in the postseason — they were eliminated in the wild card round after an embarrassing home loss to the Baltimore Ravens — left with him.
History may repeat itself with Gronk now suffering the same season-ending injury (and a possible minor concussion to boot). At least it wasn’t Bernard Pollard this time. But if that happens, it will be a shame because this has been a much tougher and more resilient Patriots team.
The 2009 Patriots were the worst since the team retooled its offense for the record-breaking 2007 season. This was before there were any dynamic pass-catchers at tight end, other than the talented but inconsistent Benjamin Watson. There wasn’t much of a running game. The defense was a shell of its Super Bowl-winning former self.
Quarterback Tom Brady was coming off a season-ending knee injury — torn ACL and MCL, natch — of his own. He was a little rusty. Randy Moss was just starting to decline to the point where the best defenses could now contain him in single coverage. The team had no viable third receiver, or at least not one they were willing to use. Rookie Julian Edelman, already clearly the Patriots’ third-best wideout despite having played quarterback in college at Kent State, was seen as too much of a copy of Welker. They were seldom on the field together.
Always capable of making you-know-what look like Shinola, Brady managed to get some sporadic good play out of career special teamer Sam Aiken. An 81-yard touchdown reception against the Miami Dolphins springs to mind. But if a defense could take away Moss deep and limit Welker after the catch, not even New England coach Bill Belichick had much of an answer.
But the Patriots’ problems that season ran even deeper. This was a team that folded when the going got tough and the locker room was no longer the source of unity and strength it once had been. In the NFL Network’s “A Football Life,” Belichick can be heard complaining of that squad, “I just can’t get these guys to play the way I want them too.”
Case in point: They blew an early lead and lost the game when Welker went down. The team struggled to a 10-6 record, one fewer win than when Matt Cassel was at the helm the previous year, when only the combined presence of Brett Favre and a healthy Chad Pennington in the AFC East plus the absence of Brady kept them out of the playoffs.
A Super Bowl contender they were not.
There’s a very good case to be made this year’s team isn’t a Super Bowl contender either. Gronkowski isn’t the only Pro Bowler they’ve lost to injury this year. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo are both out for the remainder of the year. So is offseason acquisition Tommy Kelly, the defensive tackle who was supposed to provide depth behind Wilfork.
Slow starts on offense and porousness against the run on defense aren’t a good combination for the playoffs.
Yet the 2013 Patriots, despite lacking the star power of Moss or the consistency of Welker, have been much harder to count out. Trailing 26-14 in the final two minutes of Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, the Patriots still came back to win. Yes, the pass interference call that helped set up the final touchdown was questionable. But the effort — two productive drives, an outside kick, and two touchdowns in 98 seconds without Gronk — wasn’t.
This Patriots team is on course for second seed in the AFC and a first-round bye, not the wild card round. They will only go 10-6 like their 2009 counterparts if they lose out.
With rookie receivers who occasionally looked lost, the Patriots lost only one game without Gronkowski. They managed to beat the New Orleans Saints without their tight end and with wide receiver Danny Amendola sidelined. Two of their three losses on the season actually came with Gronkowski in the game.
I know what the statistics say. The Patriots were ranked second in points per game with Gronkowski, 22nd without him. Fourth in red zone efficiency with him, 30th without him. Third in pass yards per game with him, 19th without him. Second in first downs, 16th without him.
“From a statistical standpoint, Tom Brady was Aaron Rodgers when Rob Gronkowski was on the field last season and Andy Dalton when the All-Pro tight end was sidelined,” writes NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling.
Maybe that’s all she wrote. But with a healthy (for the moment) Amendola, a Kevin Faulk-like running/receiving threat like Shane Vereen, a quality stable of running backs (when they don’t fumble), an emergent Edelman, and two rookie outside receivers who may have learned from their early season mistakes, ceding the season to Peyton Manning seems like leaving Gillette Stadium early on the night of the Patriots’ come-from-behind win against the Denver Broncos.
What was it that the much-despised Belichick once said about statistics? Stats are for losers. The final score is for winners.