Yet, their odds of winning the Super Bowl have grown longer since kickoff. The Pats will have to finish the chase for their fourth ring without the services of Rob Gronkowski.
Debates will rage about whether Gronkowski was rushed back too early. That's not my concern.
And, when it really gets down to it, it isn't the concern of the Pats and their fans either. They just want to know how the odds of another Super Bowl title have been affected.
Life Without Gronk
As noted above, this isn't the first time the Pats have had to survive without Gronkowski. New England went 4-1 in his absence in Weeks 12-16.
The Pats offense didn't seem to miss a beat without their most dangerous playmaker. They rolled to 35.6 points per contest (though oddly struggled on the road against Miami and Jacksonville). One of those can be chalked up to facing a divisional rival with a tough defense. The other, well, sometimes things don't always work out as planned.
A major concern, though, can be extrapolated from those games. Tom Brady only threw eight interceptions throughout the 2012 regular season. Of those interceptions, six came in those five Gronk-less games. That could just be dumb luck (three of them were against the Jacksonville Jaguars), or it could indicate that Brady is forcing things to make the offense hum when missing his best weapon.
The loss of the standout red-zone target puts the pressure on Brady to find new routes to the end zone. As long as he keeps finding the open man and playing within the system, New England can survive.
The Cupboard Isn't Bare
If any team could endure the loss of a top-flight pass-catcher, it's the Pats. Gronkowski did lead the team with 11 touchdowns, but the talent on the roster should keep New England fans warm for the next (possibly) three weeks.
The Patriots had four different receivers lead the team in receptions or receiving yards during the above-mentioned five-game stretch. Wes Welker (118 catches, 1,354 yards), Shane Vereen (eight catches, 149 yards), Brandon Lloyd (74 catches, 911 yards) and Aaron Hernandez (51 catches, 483 yards) each took turns leading the team in successive weeks. Vereen's presence on this list especially proves that the Patriots will find ways to move the ball. Brady is a smart passer who forces a defense to cover all options. Otherwise, he will find whichever receiver is neglected.
The most notable open men will be Hernandez and Welker. When Gronkowski was down, Hernandez performed his best work with 29 receptions for 296 yards and three touchdowns. Welker continued to do his usual thing by grabbing 37 balls for 370 yards and three scores.
But the best example of New England's ability to survive occurred this past weekend. Gronkowski left in the first quarter without recording a catch. Yet, Brady threw for 344 yards, three touchdowns and, most importantly, zero interceptions. Four receivers (all included in the list above) caught five passes or more.
The Opponents Left
If your girlfriend has put you in a complete football-related timeout for the past five months, let me be the first to welcome you back. And inform you that Ray Lewis is retiring after the season.
Seriously. It's everywhere.
Gronk's absence won't help the Pats, but they still have enough in reserve to put up points against the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens weren't able to slow Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. They won't be able to shut down New England either.
Hernandez will be able to exploit the same holes that Zach Miller did against the Atlanta Falcons. And we've already seen the Patriots storm back against the San Francisco 49ers without the former All-Pro tight end.
Basically, New England is still capable of beating everyone left and just might be the leader in Vegas sportsbooks.
You don't lose Rob Gronkowski and not lament it for a few hours, but life will go on. The Patriots have a ridiculous amount of weapons, and I haven't even mentioned Danny Woodhead and Stevan Ridley. The road to that fourth belt won't be easy, but it's still passable.
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