Rob Gronkowski is the best overall tight end in the NFL.
Jimmy Graham has better hands, Vernon Davis is more electric in the open field, and Jason Witten is a better route runner. Gronk, however, has the best combination of all facets of the game that being a great tight end entails.
On top of that, Gronk’s blend of size (6'6, 265) and strength make him the best blocker at his position. Despite all this, the Patriots do not need Gronk to win the title.
Last year, the Patriots came within a perfectly thrown deep ball between two defenders from winning their fourth title. That was on a team that lacked a home run threat on offense; a team that was the worst in the league defending the pass; a team whose best offensive lineman in Logan Mankins was playing with a torn ACL.
The Pats compensated for those deficiencies with perhaps the best short-to-intermediate passing game in history. The 2011 Patriots scored 32.1 points per game without having a single running back who could run by linebackers in the open field or a receiver who could take the top off of the defense.
This season, the Patriots have featured Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen as their leading running backs. Both these players are explosive and give the Patriots the chance for game breaking plays that BenJarvus Green-Ellis simply didn’t.
Partly due to their running back’s explosive potential, the 2013 Patriots, with balance in mind, have placed more emphasis on the run game. This increased role for backs has amounted to a 420 yard increase in rushing yards from 2011, 2,184 to 1,764.
With a suddenly explosive running game, gone are the days when teams can line up strictly in nickel and dime most plays against the Patriots. When teams attempt to go with a light defensive formation against the Patriots in 2012, New England simply overpowers them with the run game.
Will the Patriots win the title without Gronk?
Had Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez been healthy the entire year, they might have outdone last year's passing total as well. Where they did improve in the passing game was at their WR2 spot. Brandon Lloyd has given the Patriots a competent deep threat (if you consider a 20-yard comeback a deep route) that out gained the Patriots' second and third receivers combined yardage wise.
A devastating run game can help aid a defense by keeping them rested. The Patriots defense this year has been helping itself. With improved play at corner, safety, and outside linebacker, the Pats have allowed Bill Belichick to run the defense he prefers.
In 2011, due to poor play in the secondary, The Hoodie was forced to pressure the passer with two up field speed rushers at defensive end. Doing so left the Patriots susceptible to off-tackle runs, screens, draws and quarterbacks that stepped up in the pocket. The result was every play ended in either a sack, forced turnover or a big play for the other team.
In 2012 the Patriots are playing more fundamentally sound football, staying in their gaps and keeping everyone in front of them. Although the sacks and turnovers are down, this defense is considerably better than any defense the Patriots have had since their dynasty years.
Finally, the Patriots have the linebackers reminiscent of the glory days. This is where the heart and soul of the defense lives: super physical thumpers Spikes, Mayo and Hightower.
With the improvements defensively, in the run game and at the second receiver spot, the Patriots are better than the team that lost in the Super Bowl last year. These improvements will allow the Patriots to handle and adjust with the loss of Gronkowski, just as they did last postseason.
The Patriots will win the Super Bowl this year because they are still the best team in the league, even without Rob Gronkowski.