When Rob Gronkowski was lost in the tenth game of the season there was no doubt the Patriots would have some problems to overcome. Not many teams can lose their most effective weapon and still compete with the elite teams in the NFL and the iron of their division, but the Patriots have done just that.
With Gronk expected to see some limited time in a return to action this weekend against the Dolphins, let's break down where the Patriots have struggled and excelled in Gronk's absence.
Brady Under Pressure
An underrated thing the Pats have missed about Gronk is his blocking, which might be surprising considering his 37 touchdowns in two-and-a-half seasons in the NFL.
But in the first ten games with Gronk, Brady was knocked down just 37 times.
In five games without Gronk, Brady's been knocked down 45 times.
That's a difference of being knocked down almost four times a game to nine times a game. You have to wonder how well Brady has held up, especially as they head into the playoffs.
It's not just Gronk's actual blocking ability that they miss, but also the threat of him as a receiver that keeps defenders on their heels a bit around the line of scrimmage. Without that threat, teams have one less major problem to worry about and are more apt to pin their ears back and get after Brady.
The Patriots' pass-blocking was inexcusable against the Jaguars, with every offensive linemen giving up multiple hits or hurries, so of course a chunk of this is on them as well.
It just so happens the pass protection has been its worst all season without Gronkowski in the lineup.
Third-down Power Outage
The most noticeable stat to fall was the Patriots' third-down offense. Before Gronk's injury they were converting at a 51.1 percent rate, but since then they've been getting a first down just 43.5 percent of the time.
That's a significant drop, but would still put them in the top ten of NFL third-down offenses—not bad. But there's no doubt that this is where Gronk's absence has hurt the most.
Gronk is a huge factor in every kind of third-down situation, so it's obvious the Pats might struggle. Whether it's his blocking in a 3rd-and-short, or his route running on 3rd-and-6, Gronk is a force on the most important down in football.
If there's one area the Pats will need an instant impact from Gronk in, it's on third down. If we see him this weekend that's likely where he'll start.
Chemistry With Brandon Lloyd
The silver lining of Gronk's injury, assuming he comes back at close to 100 percent, is that it forced Brady to develop his confidence in a receiver not named Welker or Branch. Brady and Brandon Lloyd are finally starting to click now that Brady doesn't have his trusty tight end in the middle.
In the first ten games Lloyd had 46 catches for 525 yards.
In the past five games Lloyd has 31 catches for 377 yards.
Lloyd's 10 catches for 190 yards against the 49ers was really a breakout performance for him, and it's coming at the right time of the year.
For three years the Patriots have lacked a true X wide receiver who can challenge the perimeter of the defense both wide and deep. Lloyd is finally showing those kind of qualities, and if he continues to play like this the Patriots might just be truly unstoppable once they get Gronkowski back.
The unfortunate result of having uninhibited pass rushers and taking a lot of shots deep and outside is that Brady has been throwing more interceptions without Gronkowski.
In the ten games with Gronk, he only threw three, but in five games without him, he's thrown five.
Four of them have come in the past two games, so it seems clear that Brady could really use his big tight end back now. As teams have gotten a new bead on this Patriots offense without Gronkowski it's become harder for them to move the ball.
They're still able to put a few unstoppable drives together each game, but they're far less consistent than they were with Gronkowski. Much of that likely has to do with how big of an impact Gronk has in all phases of the offense.
Run Game Regression
Before Gronk's injury the Pats were averaging 142.9 yards on the ground per game.
In the five games since they've averaged 117.6.
Of course, some of that has to do with facing some pretty stout run defenses in the past five weeks and that they had to overcome some deficits by throwing a lot. Also, the back-to-back 250 yard games against the Broncos and Bills early in the season certainly skew the stats to that side a bit as well.
But the numbers are significant, especially considering the Patriots now have their offensive line fully healthy and intact.
Gronk's impact in the end zone has always been obvious, but his absence as a blocker has affected both the pass and run game. This just shows how valuable he is for his versatility and why he's truly a special tight end.
One area that we expected the Patriots to struggle in without Gronkowski was in the red zone. There's no better target than this big tight end inside the 20, and it seemed like Brady might've developed an over-reliance on him.
However, that has not been the case. The Patriots have actually been better inside the red zone without Gronk (77.8 percent) than they were with him (65.3 percent).
This is a good sign for the offense that they are consistently finishing long drives with touchdowns even without their best target. Perhaps without Gronkowski to key in on, teams have struggled knowing where Brady wants to go with the ball.
Regardless, adding Gronk back into the mix can't be a bad thing, and hopefully Brady's confidence in his other targets inside the 20 will pay dividends as well.
One Loss Has Likely Impact
The Patriots have gone an impressive 4-1 since losing Gronkowski, but the failed comeback against the 49ers could have significant consequences.
As it stands now, that one's the difference between the third seed and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
They could still slip back into one of the top two seeds, but they'll need the Texans or Broncos to lose this weekend while taking care of the Dolphins themselves. If they are able to get back into a bye, Gronkowski's absence could possibly have nothing but a positive impact, especially if Gronk's ailing hip finally got healthy along with his arm.
They definitely need him on third down, but they haven't missed a beat in the red zone. The biggest question is how well he can block. The more effective he is in the run game, the better.
The Pats learned to get by without their best punch. The road to New Orleans might be a little bit longer because of it, but the return of Gronk provides a big boost at the most important time of the season.
Mike Dussault is a New England Patriots Featured Columnist, the creator/editor-in-chief of PatsPropaganda.com and co-hosts the PatsPropaganda & Frenz podcastwith AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz. You can follow him on Twitter here.