The New England Patriots signed their two key, young skill-position players to long-term contracts this offseason. They have already lost both to injuries this season.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski joined Aaron Hernandez on the shelf after he suffered a broken forearm in this week's 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
According to reports, the injury will keep him out from four to six weeks.
One piece at a time, the Patriots have lost key players on offense to injury. Gronkowski and Hernandez are joined by guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly on the sidelines, wide receiver Wes Welker was questionable for this week's game with an ankle injury and Julian Edelman missed three games with a hand injury.
To this point, the offense has continued at its full functionality, ranking first in both points and yards. Gronkowski has been a huge factor in that success. With his two-touchdown game against the Colts, he notched his third consecutive season with 10 or more touchdown receptions, becoming the first tight end in NFL history to do so.
Here's a look at how this injury affects the Patriots the most and what it means for them going forward.
Strengths and Versatility at Risk
Gronkowski has always been a great receiving tight end, and his skills as a blocker have been largely overlooked in the media as a result.
They haven't gone overlooked inside the walls at Gillette Stadium. According to ProFootballFocus.com (membership required), the Patriots have used him as a run-blocker on 299 snaps this season (44.8 percent of his total). He has been exceptional in the trenches, grading out as the best run-blocking tight end in the league, and the Patriots have run behind him effectively as a result.
Notice in the video above, Gronkowski throws a key block to spring running back Stevan Ridley for a big gain.
The Patriots have other blocking tight ends in Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, but they don't have another receiving threat like him—especially with Aaron Hernandez still sidelined with a high ankle sprain.
Gronkowski has been one of Brady's favorite targets throughout his two-and-a-half year career, but especially over the past four games in which he has accounted for 24 receptions, 392 yards and seven touchdowns.
On #Patriots & Gronkowski injury: think Xs & Os. Lose the impact of Seam route, Hi-Lo concept. Two of the top routes in the NE playbook.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) November 19, 2012
The Patriots have already been forced out of their comfort zone without Hernandez; it looks like they'll be adapting yet again without Gronkowski.
Seeding Now Pivotal
If Gronkowski is out for six weeks, he will not return until after the Patriots' final game of the season. The Patriots have no control over how long it takes to heal, but they do have control over when he returns.
Sure, he might be slated to return after six weeks, but will he be 100 percent at that point? Could rushing him back do more damage, as may have been the case with Hernandez? It's a risk worth avoiding, if possible.
If they can earn a top seed in the AFC playoffs, they will allow him an extra week to recover and be fully healthy for the most important games of the season.
Good luck with that.
Will the Patriots earn a first-round bye?
At 9-1, the Texans are the current No. 1 seed in the conference. New England would have a hard time surpassing them, but there is an opening: the Patriots host the Texans at Gillette Stadium in Week 14. A win would help—though not necessarily guarantee—their chances at a top seed, but a loss would almost guarantee their elimination from the conversation.
They have already lost to the Ravens, which means if the two teams finished tied for the second-best record in the AFC, the Ravens would get the nod.
As the Patriots try to make a push for one of the top two seeds in the conference, they'll be doing it without one of their best players on offense.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained via team press releases.