Rob Gronkowski's Return Makes New England Patriots Super Bowl Favorites

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 29, 2012

ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 30:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots celebrates scoring  a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 30, 2012 in Orchard Park, New York.New England won 52-28.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

The New England Patriots are gearing up for their eighth trip to the playoffs in the past nine years, and as the team readies for their regular season finale, a familiar face is set to return and might just make the Patriots the favorites in the AFC.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has missed the past five games after breaking his forearm against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 11, is set to return to action in at least a limited capacity against the Miami Dolphins, according to Tom Curran of Comcast Sports Net.


Expect to see Rob Gronkowski suited up and playing Sunday in at least a limited role, according to a source. #PatriotsTalk

— Tom E. Curran (@tomecurran) December 29, 2012


Gronkowski, who leads all tight ends with 10 touchdown catches this year despite missing a third of the season, has been practicing for over a week, but it was unknown whether the third-year pro would make it back onto the field for a tune-up before the regular season ended.

It now appears that he will, and not only is that good news for the Patriots, but it's most assuredly bad news for the rest of the AFC.

Granted, it's not like the New England offense went into hibernation with Gronkowski on the shelf, as the Patriots have averaged over 34 points a game without him, including matchups with top 10 defenses in San Francisco and Houston.

Now, with Gronkowski back in the lineup, defending the Patriots goes from difficult to nearly impossible, especially for a team like the Texans that just isn't built for winning shootouts.

Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare, especially in the red zone. He's too quick for most linebackers and too physical for most safeties, and he carries cornerbacks down the field piggy-back like it's a company picnic and not a playoff game.

It's not just Gronkowski teams have to worry about either. For most of the season, either Gronkowski or fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez has been hurt, but now the team will have both star tight ends in addition to wideouts Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker and 1,200-yard rusher Stevan Ridley.

That's enough to give a defensive coordinator heartburn.

All this isn't to say that the Patriots are unbeatable, as the San Francisco 49ers topped them in Week 15, and the Ravens took them down 13 weeks and 15 defensive injuries ago.

However, with Gronkowski back in the lineup, defeating the Patriots just got quite a bit more difficult. And with the team about as close to full strength as you're going to get at this time of the year, it's the Patriots, and not the red-hot Broncos, who are the AFC's favorites entering the postseason.