The New England Patriots may be playoff bound, but they’ll be heading into the NFL’s tournament without their star tight end Rob Gronkowski. The team officially ended Gronkowski’s season when they placed him in IR on Monday after an MRI revealed the tight end tore his MCL and ACL against the Cleveland Browns.
There’s no doubt the Patriots will miss Gronk on offense. In just seven games of action, the star tight end accounted for just shy of 600 yards through the air in addition to four touchdown receptions.
Stats don’t tell the whole story, however. The Patriots are fielding a group of receivers that is largely unknown this season, and even Tom Brady needs a safety blanket. That’s where Gronkowski shined most. Being one of the few receivers on the roster with extensive experience playing with Brady, Gronkowski gave the Patriots a go-to receiving threat that they’ll sorely miss.
Gronkowski’s season was delayed due to injury, but once he got back on the field, he was ready to go. In his first game back, he topped the 100-yard mark on eight receptions.
The Patriots were already working with a tall order in regard to their Super Bowl hopes. The roster isn’t as talented as years past, and while the Patriots have themselves in position for a high seeding in the AFC playoffs, they’ve been in a number of close games that shouldn’t necessarily have been nail-biters.
Although the Patriots have now won three games in a row, the total margin of victory in those games is just seven points. Had it not been for a vintage Tom Brady performance late in Sunday’s victory over the Browns, the Patriots would have fallen to a far inferior opponent. That’s not how championship contenders win football games.
Early in the season, before Gronkowski got back to action, the Patriots struggled to win games. Sure, they were winning, but just barely. Expect that type of play to continue from the Patriots. New England will be playing the Dolphins and Ravens in consecutive weeks, both of which are desperately trying to scratch and claw their way into the postseason. Because of the magnitude of those games, the Patriots will have the opportunity to use those games as tune-ups for the postseason.
Tom Brady has proven time and time again that he can win with nearly any team. The Patriots were winning before Gronkowski returned, and they’ll likely win at least two of their final three games heading into the postseason. Still, the loss of Gronk’s production hits a team already starving for receivers, and it’s not a hit they can afford to take. Frankly, I’m not sure they had a chance of winning the Super Bowl before his latest injury, now it looks like a longshot at best.
If there’s one thing that Gronkowski did well, it was taking heat off an inexperienced group of receivers. Now, without a go-to target, opponents will once again be able to focus on covering the Patriots’ wide receivers. Will that hurt the Patriots in the wins column? Not necessarily. The Patriots’ three losses this season have all been by seven points or less, and they’ve won seven games decided by a touchdown or less.
Regardless of Gronkowski’s status, the Patriots will have to win close playoff games all the way through the Super Bowl. That’s the identity they’ve built for themselves this year, but that’s not necessarily how teams go about winning Super Bowls. So, does the loss of Gronkowski derail the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations? No, not really, but the loss certainly doesn’t help matters, and considering the volume of close games the Patriots fight through, the loss of Gronkowski may push their Super Bowl hopes off the ledge.