The hits keep coming for the New England Patriots, and this could be the one that spells doom for their title hopes this season.
Gronkowski suffered a right knee injury that took him out of the game in the third quarter, and while the Patriots offense found its stride later on, his loss will be huge moving forward.
"Rob was taken to the hospital for observation and evaluation on his injury," said head coach Bill Belichick after the game. "That's all I have."
According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, Gronkowski's Monday morning MRI revealed a torn ACL and some MCL damage. He is done for the year, and judging by the hit from Browns safety T.J. Ward, it's not a huge surprise.
|Games||Pts/gm.||Red zone %||Brady comp %||Brady passer rating||Most points||Fewest points|
|Without Gronkowski (6)||20.8||40.9||56.9||79.5||30||6|
|With Gronkowski (7)||32||68.8||64.1||95.8||55||20|
Pro Football Reference
Not only was Gronkowski doing damage to opposing defenses in his own right (592 yards and four touchdowns on 39 receptions), but he was helping his teammates by drawing coverage away from them.
And as we saw in the first six games of the season when Gronkowski was sidelined after offseason forearm and back surgeries, Tom Brady struggled. Through six games without Gronk, Brady had 1,480 yards and eight touchdowns. In the seven with him, Brady had 2,205 yards and 13 scores.
"It hurts to see any of those guys go down," said Brady. "Certainly with Gronk, and we've sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we've got to just keep bouncing back. No one feels sorry for the Patriots."
The Patriots might find it difficult against good defenses like the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs, all of which rank in the top 10 in scoring defense this season and are potential opponents in the playoffs.
Specifically, the Bengals and Ravens don't have to look too far back to find success against a Gronkowski-less Patriots offense. Baltimore beat the Patriots sans Gronk 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game last January, and Cincy won 13-6 two weeks before Gronkowski's return.
Schematically, the offense doesn't change much with or without their All-Pro tight end. They tend to stick with the 11 personnel grouping (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) whether it's Gronkowski or one of the backup tight ends—Michael Hoomanawanui or Matthew Mulligan.
Hoomanawanui has been battling a knee injury and was inactive for Sunday's game, and unless Mulligan can fill Gronk's shoes, the Patriots could turn to fullback James Develin for an increased role.
Regardless, the combination of size and athleticism is just impossible to replace. Now, as the weather gets colder and the games get more important, the Patriots are once again back to where it all started—without Gronkowski and with significant questions on offense.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.