Rob Gronkowski's Leg Injury Will Determine Rest of Patriots Season

R. Cory SmithSenior Writer IDecember 8, 2013

Dec 8, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; Medical staff attend to New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) after he was injured by a Cleveland Browns player during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The return of Rob Gronkowski brought back not only one of the most reliable targets for the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, but it also meant the return of one of the most physical tight ends in the league. Now the Patriots are left holding their breath that Gronkowski can return once again after a knee injury took him out of the game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 14.

Pro Football Talk reported that Gronkowski will have an MRI taken on his knee on Monday:

For the Patriots, this could mean the difference between contending for the AFC Championship and potentially the Super Bowl or likely flaming out in an early round of the playoffs.

Let's be clear, the Patriots will still make the playoffs with a Miami Dolphins team that is just staying above water—pun intended—in the AFC Wild Card picture at 6-6 as their next closest competitor in the AFC East. But without Gronkowski, New England could once again struggle in the passing game like it did at the beginning of the season.

FOXBORO, MA - DECEMBER 08:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots is carted off of the field in the third quarter after being tackled by members of the Cleveland Browns during the game at Gillette Stadium on December 8, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachus
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Here's the good news: The other receivers around Gronkowski have improved throughout the season. At the start of the year, players like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola didn't look like locks for targets from Tom Brady. But now both have shown that they can be reliable receivers, despite the lack of yards in this week's showing.

Here's the bad news: Gronkowski joins a long list of receivers that have suffered injuries recently for New England. With both Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins missing this week's game, the downfield threats for Brady appear to all be on the sidelines.

There's also an unfortunate trend forming here as the Patriots are gradually losing size at the receiver positions. Edelman and Amendola are both slot receivers who stand at 5'10" and 5'11", respectively. And the leading receiver for the Patriots against the Browns was running back Shane Vereen, who stands at 5'10" as well.

Whether it's the size, physicality or simply the red zone production that the Patriots will miss the most if Gronkowski does have to miss games in the coming weeks, Tom Brady will certainly have to go back to the drawing board when it comes to finding a receiver to replace everything that Gronk offers moving forward.