The New England Patriots have been very good at overcoming injuries under the tutelage of head coach Bill Belichick. There's no better example of the Patriots' resiliency than in 2008 when they lost star quarterback Tom Brady for the entire season during the first game, yet still managed to win 11 games.
Under Belichick, the Patriots have adopted a team-first, next-man-up philosophy that has allowed them to continue playing in Super Bowls despite the loss of key players to retirement, free agency, trade and injury.
On his weekly radio appearance on WEEI, Belichick explained an aspect of his coaching philosophy when asked about the recent injury to star tight end Rob Gronkowski (h/t Mike Reiss),
I think you have to be careful when you are trying to run a team to go up to one guy and say, "Michael, we're going to leave you in the game because we don't really care about you, but Glenn, we're going to take you out because you're really important." I don't think that's really a good way to approach a team. I've never done that. I don't think that would be a very successful approach to it.
Rather than just take Belichick's word for it, here's former Patriot Heath Evans on Belichick's equal treatment of his players (h/t Jarrett Bell):
Belichick would say something like, "C'mon, Brady, what were you thinking here?" I'm thinking, "Really? Tom Brady? First-ballot Hall of Famer? Oh, my God."
That's where that coaching and accountability is crucial. That 53rd man on the roster has to know he's in the same boat as Tom Brady. It creates a winning atmosphere, the freedom to be a team. But when your star players are untouchables and there's no accountability, young players lose respect.
The resilient Patriots have overcome injuries this season to starting safeties Patrick Chung and Steven Gregory, starting guards Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly, wide receiver Julian Edelman, running back Brandon Bolden and, most significantly, tight end Aaron Hernandez.
Hernandez, who was a key to the offense last season, has missed six games this season and was only fully healthy for the first game of the year.
The team will face a bigger challenge on the injury front going forward with the loss of Gronkowski for what is likely to be the remainder of the regular season. While Hernandez has been a huge loss to the passing attack, he's not the elite blocker that Gronkowski is in the running game.
Besides Brady, Gronkowski is the Patriots most elite player, and he's arguably the best tight end in all of football.
The team will also be without its best defensive player Thursday night, with defensive end Chandler Jones out with an ankle injury.
The Patriots were outplayed at home last month by the Jets despite winning the game 29-26 in overtime. Going into New York and winning without Gronkowski, Mankins and Jones will be a difficult task, but one that the Patriots will be up to.
After traveling to New York and Miami, the Patriots return home for games against perhaps the two best teams in football, the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers. If the Patriots want a first round bye, they are probably going to have to win out to hold off the 8-2 Baltimore Ravens and 7-3 Denver Broncos.
The Patriots have the tie-breaker over the Broncos due to their victory over them earlier this season. However, they are really two games behind the Ravens for the second seed right now because of their loss in Baltimore during Week 3.
Can the Patriots win out and earn the number two seed without Gronkowski for the rest of the regular season? It seems far-fetched, but so did winning 11 games without Brady back in 2008.
If the Patriots can't earn a first-round bye, their path to the Super Bowl will be more difficult this year, making a strong finish to the regular season an imperative. The best way to make the offense's job easier without Gronkowski will be for the defense to become more stingy starting Thursday night.