First agony. Then ecstasy. Acceptance will have to wait.
Unusual locker-room vibe: A mix of heartfelt emotion from Patriots teammates for injured Rob Gronkowski and elation from improbable comeback.
— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 8, 2013
I called the Patriots' victory over the New Orleans Saints a "Pyrrhic Victory" back in October, and this win might be another. That said, the Patriots have proven time and time again that you can never count them out.
Here are the initial grades for the Patriots players.
Brady nearly had the most empty 400-yard game in his career. A touchdown throw—his second of the day—to Danny Amendola with 31 seconds remaining, however, saved the day.
Brady finished 32-of-52 for 418 yards. He turned the ball over twice, fumbling once and throwing one interception. He wasn't accurate early—overthrowing Gronkowski and Julian Edelman—but was able to take advantage of the chances given to him in the second half.
Three consecutive comeback victories is nothing to take for granted, but Brady needs to start playing better in the first half for the Patriots to have a chance at a Super Bowl run.
Blount finished with eight carries for 42 yards and a big 32-yard reception. His physical running has softened up defenses in the second half, helping to ignite the comebacks over the last three weeks.
Shane Vereen: A
Vereen had one drop that probably cost the Patriots three points but was otherwise nearly perfect on the day. I was tempted to list Vereen as a receiver as he only toted the ball three times for nine yards. He was targeted 17 times through the air, totaling 153 yards on 12 receptions.
Shane Vereen has 40 receptions and 38 rush attempts. #Patriots— Mike Loyko (@NEPD_Loyko) December 8, 2013
James Develin: B+
Develin was dinged up for part of the day, resulting from falling to the ground after an incredible 31-yard reception down the right sideline. He continues to surprise with his ability to create offense.
Ridley was eased back into the game, receiving eight carries and gaining 35 yards. Most importantly, Ridley had no fumbles on the day.
Julian Edelman: A-
Danny Amendola: A-
Edelman and Amendola were quiet much of the day, but they came through when needed. Each scored a touchdown—with Edelman dropping a "Gronk-spike" after his score—and converted numerous first downs down the stretch.
In Gronkowski's absence, each of these two players will need to take their game to a new level.
Josh Boyce: B-
Boyce introduced himself to Patriots fans with some slick moves on screen plays and impressive deep speed. Boyce finished with 49 yards on three catches and drew an important—albeit questionable—pass-interference penalty that set up the winning touchdown.
Austin Collie: C+
One target. One catch. One first down. Hard to argue with that sort of efficiency.
Kenbrell Thompkins: I
Thompkins missed the game due to a hip injury suffered against the Houston Texans.
Aaron Dobson: I
Due to a sprained foot, Dobson was held out of the game against the Cleveland Browns.
Rob Gronkowski: I
Gronkowski was just starting to get up to speed when a vicious—but clean—hit by T.J. Ward took him out of the game. I can't imagine he will be able to return this year if Mike Garafolo is correct.
Source says Rob Gronkowski suffered what's believed to be a torn ACL. MRI tomorrow to confirm. Not surprising but another bad break for him.— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) December 8, 2013
The Patriots will struggle to replace Gronkowski if he is indeed out for the year. Expect New England to be shopping for tight ends this offseason.
Matthew Mulligan: B
Mulligan made the most of his one target from Brady. He caught a screen pass and rumbled 15 yards before trying—and failing—to hurdle a Browns cornerback.
Michael Hoomanawanui: I
Hoomanawanui was held out of the game due to nagging injuries. The Patriots will need him back in the lineup as soon as possible.
Will Svitek: C-
Nate Solder: C-
Logan Mankins: C
Ryan Wendell: D+
Dan Connolly: C
The offensive line gave up four sacks to the talented defensive line.
Logan Mankins still struggles to block the power play-action pass, failing to reach Browns outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo in time. Nate Solder and Will Svitek were each victimized for sacks by the Browns defensive ends.
Ryan Wendell struggled with the Browns defensive tackles and was lucky to only be called for one holding penalty.
Rob Ninkovich: A-
Save for a couple of isolated plays, the Patriots defense played very well. Ninkovich expanded on that feeling after the game, as reported by the team's official website.
Defensively, going into halftime, I thought we did decent but still were on the field a little bit too long. In the second half there, that one play where they just went one play and scored, you can’t have that. You can’t give up a quick-throw slant for a touchdown. We shouldn’t have done that. We just have to work hard on that and not give those up. But I love the way we fought. That’s situational football right there.
Ninkovich played a big part in the comeback, totaling a sack and a tackle for loss.
Chandler Jones: B-
Jones failed to register a sack for the second week in a row, constantly being pushed and punched—legally for the most part—by All-Pro Joe Thomas. He was able to get in on five tackles in the Patriots improved run defense.
Andre Carter: C
Carter failed to show up on the stat sheet again, but he was able to push the pocket on occasion when Chandler Jones moved inside.
Sealver Siliga: B-
Chris Jones: C+
Joe Vellano: C
If you take away Josh Gordon's reverse and Jason Campbell's scramble, the Browns rushed for only 47 yards on 22 carries. Siliga looked like an improvement over Vellano inside and kept the Patriots linebackers from having to deal with guards at the second level all day.
Dont'a Hightower: B+
Hightower was a different player against the Browns. He finished with 11 tackles on the day, although he was right there on many more. He also was able to get a quarterback hit.
One of the biggest plays of the game involved Hightower leveling a Browns running back in the flat, forcing Jason Campbell into an intentional-grounding penalty.
Brandon Spikes: B-
Spikes totaled four tackles on the day but didn't have an impact play in the game. If Spikes, Hightower and Collins can all get it together at the same time, they are a fearsome group.
Jamie Collins: B-
Collins made multiple impact plays—including a tackle for loss and a pass deflection that showcased his absurd vertical leap—racking up eight tackles against Cleveland. Collins was to blame for the Jordan Cameron touchdown, biting too hard on the run-fake.
Dane Fletcher: C+
Fletcher worked in coverage and rushing the quarterback late in the game, hitting the quarterback once and notching one tackle.
Devin McCourty: B-
McCourty hasn't had a lot of balls thrown in his direction over the last couple of weeks, but there were a few in his vicinity against Cleveland. He also couldn't chase down Josh Gordon—who can—on his 80-yard touchdown.
Aqib Talib: C
Talib had a tough job trying to contain Josh Gordon. He did his job during the first half but let Gordon get loose on an 80-yard touchdown that nearly put the game out of reach. Gordon finished with 151 yards on seven catches.
Kyle Arrington: B+
Arrington had a nice pass deflection and ended up recovering the onside kick to help keep the Patriots' comeback hopes alive. It was nice to see him get some praise after giving up a big play last week.
Logan Ryan: B-
He has made some big plays jumping routes this year, but he was nearly burned by Browns receiver Greg Little on a nifty double move. Luckily for Ryan, Little was overthrown.
Steve Gregory: B
Looking quite healthy, Gregory was a sure tackler in the secondary despite wearing a hard cast on his thumb. McCourty and Gregory are very good in tandem.
Stephen Gostkowski: A++
Another 50-yard bomb. A successful onside kick. What more can you ask for? Gostkowski has been the best kicker in the NFL this season. Here is what Tom Brady had to say about the onside-kick recovery, per the team's official website.
It was unbelievable. It was a great – I came over to the sideline after we scored and Josh [McDaniels] said, ‘We’re going for the middle bunt.’ So I kind of stood up to get a good look and he kicked a perfect ball. That was awesome. You know, we work on that all the time and if it comes up once a year, great. If it works, I mean, it's incredible. We got the PI [pass interference] and then scored on the next play and that was incredible.
Danny Aiken: B-
Aiken had a couple of shaky snaps on extra points, but each conversion attempt was successful. Aiken has rarely made Ryan Allen work this year, so Patriots fans shouldn't be overly concerned.
Ryan Allen: B+
Allen was solid as a holder and pinned the Browns inside the 20-yard line three times. The Patriots rookie has performed well above expectations this year.
Matthew Slater: B+
Michael Buchanan: B+
Nate Ebner: B+
Chris White: B
The coverage units were up to the challenge again this week, holding the Browns to just 20.7 yards per kick return.
All statistics courtesy of NFL.com and the Patriots Media Relations Department.