Back in very, very early December of this past regular season, the Patriots placed Rob Gronkowski on injured reserve due to a lung and/or back injury that he suffered against the Seahawks just weeks before. This, of course, caused widespread panic across the village. Is New England’s season over? Will Brady fall off a cliff without his star tight end? How could the Patriots ever overcome this blow to their offense at such a time during the regular season? Those were just some of the questions thrown around when the news broke. Over two months later, the Patriots are, of course, doing just fine.
The last game that Gronk played in was against the Jets in late November, and since then, the Patriots have went a perfect 6-0 without him, because they’re the Patriots. When Gronk is sidelined during the regular season due to injury, the Patriots always seem to find a way to make up for his absence one way or another. This time around was no different.
Let’s take a look through those seven Gronk-less games. The first one, late November at San Francisco, coming off of that tough loss to the Seahawks, just before Gronk was put on IR. Sure, they faced the 49ers, but this was an important game for the Patriots to see where they were at freshly without Gronkowski. This just happened to be Dion Lewis’ first game back after being taken off the PUP list. While Lewis didn’t necessarily have a huge impact on this particular game, his presence certainly helped here. One notable play in this game, though: an absolutely spectacular 56-yard touchdown pass from Brady to rookie Malcolm Mitchell. Brady made a magnificent pass, somehow managing to escape a couple of sacks, and threw a beautiful spiral to Mitchell who made a truly athletic catch for the score. Brady also had four TD’s total in this game.
Two weeks later, just days after Gronk was placed on Injured Reserve, the Pats played the Rams. To be honest, this game wasn’t a great one out of New England, facing a dumpster fire of a team in the LA Rams, at Gillette, nonetheless. While Brady did break the all-time QB wins record in this game, it wasn’t played the way it should have been, with or without Gronk. Though, Chris Hogan did play a role in the win, as did LeGarrette Blount, both heavily important factors to the team since Gronk went down.
The next game played was arguably the win of the season for the Patriots. They faced the Ravens at home in primetime, the only team that had even remotely a chance to beat New England at Gillette. Brady threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns in such Brady fashion against a then-number one defense in the Ravens. In this game, five different players recorded 70+ yards either rushing or receiving, giving even more evidence to support the next man up mentality in New England. Many Pats fans were worried that their beloved team would actually lose this one due to Gronk’s injury. I was one of them, for a couple of days beforehand, at least. It was a legitimate concern. A legit defense in the Ravens coming into your house, whom you have a rivalry with, without Rob Gronkowski? That’s scary. But, the Patriots are the Patriots, and basically ended Baltimore’s season then and there, assuring Patriots fans that they were going to be okay.
After that signature win, New England traveled to Denver, and we all know the history regarding that. Well, the Patriots were, once again, just fine without Gronk. The game started out ugly for the Pats, Brady going 0-for-6 in the first quarter. Brady and company overcame those challenges and marched to victory in enemy territory for the first time in awhile, also while locking up the AFC East for the eighth straight time and grabbing a first-round bye. Dion Lewis had a career day, Blount played another big role in the W, and as did Edelman, The Patriots finally won in Denver, Colorado, and to make it even better, without Gronk. That’s pretty amazing, and I certainly thought that we’d never see the day.
Following yet another important win, the Pats proceeded to stomp all over the Jets at Gillette in a total blowout. Brady threw three touchdowns, to James White, Martellus Bennett, and Matt Lengel. Yeah, two of those are tight ends. Not named Rob Gronkowski. I spy a trend here...it’s safe to say that the Patriots are doing a pretty good job at this whole next man up thing. New England didn’t, and still haven’t, utilized their tight ends like most expected them to in lieu of Gronk, but this was a special occasion against an asinine Jets team, I guess. I’m more than okay with that.
In the Patriots’ final regular season game, they faced the Dolphins in Miami, where they too tend to struggle to play on the road. New England crushed the ‘Phins, wide receivers having a day of their own in this one, from Edelman to Michael Floyd. Brady threw for nearly 400 yards, Edelman accounting for about 150 of those. The Edelman factor. Blount ran for 120 yards sharp, having a day himself. The Patriots owned the Dolphins in the first quarter, too, to put it nicely. Stop me if you heard this one earlier, the Patriots won in a city where they haven’t fared well in the past, and got the dub without Gronk.
Lastly, their most recent win, in the divisional round against the Texans. We all know that the Patriots played arguably their worst football of the season last week in this game, but still covered the -16.5 spread in the end, and, you know, without Gronkowski. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Dion Lewis scored the first ever NFL postseason hat trick: a receiving, rushing, and return TD all in one playoff game. That’s pretty amazing. Brady played like trash, but still blew out Houston, nonetheless. That right there is the Patriot Way.
You probably get the point by now: the Patriots are still really good without Gronk. Going undefeated without maybe the greatest tight end of all time is what the Patriots are all about. I think I got that through to you pretty well. The Patriots have always done and continue to do a tremendous job in filling in for Gronkowski during the regular season, but in a small sample size, haven’t done great in the postseason without him. They’ve played three playoff games without that beast of a man and have went 1-2. The lone win came against the Colts in 2013, and all tight ends combined only recorded one catch. In those two losses, one against the Ravens in 2012 and one versus the Broncos in 2013, and in those games as well, the tight ends never posed a threat.
Another downside heading into the Championship Game against Pittsburgh is that Gronk has notoriously torched the Steelers throughout his career. Versus Pittsburgh, when Brady throws to Gronk, he has a perfect 158.3 rating, zero interceptions, 8 touchdowns, going 30-for-36 and 496 yards. I’m not saying that the Pats are doomed without Gronk in this game, but it’s notable and should be brought up. All you have to do is watch a couple minutes of film to see that Gronkowski virtually owns the Steelers. Without Gronk in this game, it’ll be a close one. I say that if Gronk is healthy and active this weekend, New England wins by a landslide. I still think that they advance to a seventh Super Bowl under Belichick, but Gronk’s absence makes it that much more stressful and closer, unfortunately. They’ll be fine, though.
Regarding going 7-0 without the man, the myth, the legend Rob Gronkowski, you can tell that out of all of the times that the Patriots have had to make up for an injured Gronk, they’ve been the most successful in doing so this season compared to past seasons. To me, having a healthy, reliable and productive Edelman makes all the difference in this situation. For example, if Edelman hadn’t played in all 16 games this regular season and never really turned things up when Gronk went down, the story is much different. Week by week, Jules has done more and more and has looked and gotten better and better. He’s always been, arguably, the second-most important offensive player for New England, but even moreso now than ever.
We all know Edelman’s impact, but it’s been much more than just him contributing over these last couple of months. Mitchell and Hogan, both deep threats this season, have done fantastic jobs along with Edelman at wide receiver. Lewis and Blount have done great jobs on the ground, as well. Bennett, in the few times that he’s had an impact on a game, makes his presence felt in quite a positive way. Having this complete variety of options laid out for Brady has done wonders this season. Going the 3-receiver offense route rather than the 2-tight end set has been easier to make successful because of that plethora of options.
To summarize, yeah, the Patriots are downright great with Gronk, but still way above average even with him on the mend. On any other NFL team, you take away their own version of Gronk, whoever that may be, and they’re most likely going to end up in total shambles. As the games go by, the Patriots only continue to prove just how much better they are than everyone, while also reminding everyone at the same time just how scary they are when Gronk is on the field. They’ve never been more well-off in a situation like this with(out) Gronk. I think that it’s more probable than not that New England will win Super Bowl 51, Gronk-less.