Up against an inspired defense with the return of Ray Lewis, the New England Patriots will be without arguably their most dominant passing weapon in Rob Gronkowski when they host the Baltimore Ravens in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
Gronkowski re-injured his surgically repaired left forearm against the Houston Texans last weekend and has been placed on season-ending IR, according to NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal.
Gronk led the Patriots' offense with 11 touchdown receptions despite playing in just 11 games.
With the Gronkenator out of the Patriots' offense, it's only natural to think—and assume, if you're so inclined—that New England's offense will take a severe hit.
And you're not crazy to do so.
While the Patriots assuredly have an added dimension this season that they didn't have in past years (a rushing game led by Stevan Ridley), the New England offense is much more of a threat when No. 87 is on the field.
Rosenthal echoed that idea in his column, writing:
We've heard arguments that Gronkowski's absence won't hurt the Patriots much. The Patriots actually averaged slightly more points per game without Gronkowski than with him. That's a ridiculous argument for many reasons, including that Gronkowski is the best overall tight end in football.
Does anyone remember Super Bowl XLVI when Gronkowski was practically non-existent in New England's offense against the New York Giants?
Tom Brady just didn't look the same without his favorite target, ultimately leading to a 21-17 Giants win.
It doesn't matter that Gronkowski has never ranked better than third in targets on the Patriots. Even if he's not catching passes, he's either blocking in the running game or drawing coverage away from his fellow receivers.
Rosenthal also noted in his piece (h/t ESPN Boston) that New England averages less yards per play without Gronk and that Brady's completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio took a hit without the star TE on the field.
Luckily for the Patriots, they saw Shane Vereen and Michael Hoomanawanui fill in nicely to help New England put up 41 on the Texans and advance to the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens for the second consecutive season.
Despite the loss of Gronkowski, I've still predicted the Pats to beat the Ravens and advance to Super Bowl XLVII.
Even without No. 87, New England still packs a high-powered offense that should get it by against Baltimore.
But if the Patriots find themselves matched up against a staunch defense like the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on Feb. 3, the loss of Gronkowski will come back to haunt New England, just as it did in Week 15.
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