The Patriots may have to regroup with the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski.
For the fifth time this season, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady put the team on his back and carried it through a fourth-quarter rally to a win.
If Brady's career high of five fourth-quarter comebacks this year is any indication, he is equal to the task, but he's not the only one who's going to have to step it up a level.
Replacing Gronkowski won't be a one-man job.
"I think Rob is similar to the conversations we had with Jerod [Mayo] and Vince [Wilfork]," said head coach Bill Belichick. "I don't think too many teams have players of that caliber at any position to just put in another Rob Gronkowski or put in another Vince Wilfork or put in another Jerod Mayo. Whoever is in there is going to have to fulfill some of those duties but it may expand to more people, like we ended up having to do offensively [on Sunday]."
The burden of replacing Gronkowski will fall on several figures within the Patriots organization.
Belichick was pleased with the in-game adjustments that the Patriots coaching staff and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels made.
"We went into some different personnel groupings, but those were the things that we practiced and we had prepared for," said Belichick. "But without a lot of practice, we went in there and were able to make enough successful plays for the outcome to be what it was. You always have to be ready to do that."
Now that the Patriots will be without Gronkowski for the remainder of the season, that's something they'll have to do with a bit more regularity than before.
Fortunately (and unfortunately) for the Patriots coaching staff, preparing for life without Gronkowski is not uncharted territory. They were without Gronkowski for five of the final six games of the 2012 season, the AFC Championship Game and the first six games of the 2013 season. Now, they'll get back to that all-too-familiar drawing board for the final three games and beyond. That's 15 of 34 total games dating back to last year.
This is far from a welcome scenario, but the Patriots have dealt with this predicament in the past, which could help inform how they handle things this time around.
At this point, Shane Vereen is a running back in name only. For all intents and purposes, he is a wide receiver who also plays running back.
Vereen has only been in the lineup for five of the team's 13 games, but he already ranks third on the team in receptions with 40. His performance against the Browns only hammers home his status as a security blanket for Brady.
Shane Vereen set new Patriots RB records for receptions (12) & receiving yards (153) today.— New England Patriots (@Patriots) December 8, 2013
Unlike typical backs, who are only effective in the passing game on short dump-offs, Vereen is fully capable of running routes and getting open in the secondary.
On Sunday, he provided the Patriots' biggest play of the game on a 50-yard reception. He motioned out wide after initially lining up in the backfield and ran a go route off the line. With a linebacker on him in coverage, Vereen shifted to second gear to get free behind him.
A linebacker on the running back is a matchup Brady will take all day.
And that's exactly what he did, delivering a beautiful rainbow pass over everyone's head that dropped right into the bucket for Vereen.
There are truly very few players like Vereen in the NFL who can serve as a versatile matchup weapon to move around the field, so when you have a player like that on your roster, it's imperative to get him involved. The Patriots have done that since Vereen's return, and that should only continue into the home stretch and the playoffs.
Danny Amendola/Julian Edelman
During the early part of the season, Brady and the Patriots struggled while trying to get rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins more involved. Those two are currently on the shelf nursing injuries, but when they return, their presence will be greatly welcome, especially in the red zone, where the Patriots are currently lacking bigger targets.
Without Gronkowski's imposing presence over the middle of the field, the Patriots may have to turn to their little guys for some big contributions. In the past, that might have meant more targets for Wes Welker, but these days, the Patriots have a pair of other options: Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.
Pro Football Focus
Edelman has come on strong this season, especially in recent weeks. Edelman ranks second on the team in both targets (32) and receptions (24) in the past three games.
It's been several weeks of quiet, steady production from Amendola, but the Patriots will probably need more than that from their slot receiver with Gronkowski down and out. He has at least three receptions in each of the past six games and at least four receptions in four of the past five games.
Their quickness over the middle is what makes them tough to cover, and if Sunday is any indication, that could be vital to their production on throws over the middle and in the red zone.
In fact, the Patriots ran almost the same play with Edelman near the goal line on two separate occasions: first, for a two-point conversion late in the third quarter; second, for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Both times, Amendola came in motion toward Edelman. On the two-point play, Amendola ran a pivot route on the outside, underneath and breaking away from Edelman's slant route.
What jumps out to me is Edelman's flip of the hips to break away from man coverage. He does so by bringing his right foot across his body, which is not typically how a receiver will cut on a slant route—usually, they use the outside foot to plant and break inside; doing it this way might cause some receivers problems if their feet get tangled, but Edelman's quick feet are able to keep up, and he broke away from coverage relatively easily.
Michael Hoomanawanui/Matthew Mulligan/James Develin
As a result of injuries to Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, Patriots fans have grown more familiar with the names Joe Vellano and Chris Jones than anyone expected. Now, tight end Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin could join that list of players who made the leap from backup to core contributor due to a season-ending injury.
Michael Hoomanawanui is nursing an injury of his own, and he could factor back into the equation if and when he returns. He has still never recorded more than four receptions in a game, but he was the primary tight end before Gronkowski's return, and he could return to that role now that he's out yet again.
At present, Belichick acknowledges that Mulligan and Develin are role players in the offense, but that those roles are valuable and that their contributions haven't gone unnoticed.
"Sometimes their roles are a little bit bigger or a little bit smaller from game to game depending on the game plan and the situation," he said. "But when they’re called on, they've been very dependable; both smart guys that are tough and really compete well."
On Sunday, Mulligan played 40 snaps, his highest total of the season and the most for him in nearly two years.
Mulligan, clearly, was looking to take full advantage of his opportunity—and possibly to not suffer the same fate as his fellow tight end—when he leaped in the air, trying to elude a defender.
Both Mulligan and Develin have served primarily as blockers and have been serviceable in that role, but while neither will light up the field with several dazzling catches per game, each has made some plays in that respect; Develin's 31-yard reception was the second-biggest play of the day for the Patriots.
Gronkowski was so effective because of the various ways he could be used: as a downfield threat in the passing game, as a big target in the red zone and as a blocker in the running game. As a result of all those roles, it will take a group effort to replace his presence on the field.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.