Unless Rob Gronkowski's broken forearm is wildly contagious, the Patriots will not lose their stranglehold on the AFC East, but their potential seeding for the playoffs is another story.
We'll get into the seeding, but before we touch on that, let's get up to speed on Gronk's status.
Early word: Gronk has been informed that the initial timetable is 4-6 weeks with his broken forearm. Not good, could be worse.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) November 19, 2012
It is important to note that this timetable is far from official because the Patriots aren't admitting anything. Check out this report, released on Monday, from the Associated Press:
A person familiar with the operation said Monday the surgery was done but did not say which arm was injured or how much time Gronkowski was expected to miss. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because there was no official announcement. The team could not confirm that Gronkowski had an operation, Patriots spokesman Stacey James said.
So, we are left in the dark a bit about just how long Gronk will be out, but there is little doubt he is set to miss some time.
There is no denying Gronk's value. The dude is perhaps the best tight end in the league. In the passing game he is one of the league's most valuable weapons, and he is also a great blocker. He will be missed.
However, if there was a spot the Patriots were set up to withstand an injury, it is at tight end. This team is well stocked at the position, including the extremely competent Aaron Hernandez, and as the Associated Press reported in the above linked article, he is close to returning from his own injury, and has a chance of playing this week.
Gronkowski's absence will make this offense less dangerous. His blocking will be missed in the run game and his ability running routes not only leads to him putting up big numbers, but it opens up things for his teammates because he commands extra attention.
His absence will be most noticeable in the red zone, where his blocking is vital and he is one of the best red-zone targets in the league. With 15, Gronkowski is second among all tight ends in red-zone targets.
Still, we are talking about an offense with Tom Brady at the helm and plenty of other competent options. So let's take a look at the Patriots remaining schedule before we start getting into how this will shape the Patriots win-loss record.
The Patriots' next two games will come on the road against the Jets and Dolphins. They will then have two tough home games against the Texans and 49ers before closing out the season at the Jaguars and then at home against the Dolphins.
If the Patriots play anywhere near their potential, they will have no problem in four of those games with or without Gronk.
The games against the 49ers and Texans are a different story. Both of those top-flight teams have outstanding defenses, and not having Gronk on the field will limit the way the Patriots can attack them.
It doesn't mean the Patriots cannot win those games, simply that their chances of victory will be slimmer without their talented tight end, and New England was already fighting an uphill battle to earn one of the two top seeds, and get a first-round bye, in the AFC.
Check out the standings.
*x denotes division leader
1. x Houston Texans (9-1)
2. x Baltimore Ravens (8-2)
3. x New England Patriots (7-3)
4. x Denver Broncos (7-3)
5. Indianapolis Colts (6-4)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4)
7. Cincinnati Bengals (5-5)
Judging the Impact on the Playoff Picture
Considering that the Patriots have all but clinched the AFC East, New England is guaranteed at least a top-four seed.
However, to catch the Texans, the Patriots almost have to beat the Texans when the two meet, and as we discussed that will be harder without Gronkowski.
The Ravens will not be as hard to catch. They have a tougher schedule than the Patriots the remainder of the season, and just a one-game lead over the Pats.
And the reality is, that injuries or no injuries, both of those teams were going to have a hard time holding off the Broncos.
Denver has a favorable schedule, and the only game where a reasonable argument could be made that would prevent the Broncos from running the table is one against the Ravens, in Baltimore, in Week 15.
So this massive injury will do little to change the playoff picture in the AFC.
The Patriots have an easy path to the division crown, and they were going to have a hard time jumping up to the second spot in the AFC regardless of Gronk's status.
What this injury does do, is make it that much easier for the Broncos to climb the AFC rankings and for the Ravens to hold off New England.
However, the Patriots are almost certainly headed for a home game in the first round of the playoffs, and that does not hinge on when Gronkowski will return.