AFC East: Rob Gronkowski

There's another potential suitor for tight end Jermichael Finley, but it's with the same caveat as there is with the Green Bay Packers.

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Everything hinges on Finley's surgically repaired neck.

The free-agent tight end visited the New England Patriots last Friday, according to ESPN's Adam Caplan. The trip to Foxborough came less than a week after Finley was in Green Bay to check in with the Packers' team doctors.

Finley has reportedly been cleared by the doctor who performed his neck fusion surgery, Dr. Joseph Maroon. But the Packers' doctors did not put Finley through the full battery of tests that would need to be done in order to clear him to return to the team.

Last week, Packers tight end Brandon Bostick, one of Finley's closest former teammates, said he believes Finley will play in the NFL again but was not sure whether it would be in Green Bay.

Finley bruised his spinal cord -- an injury that left him briefly without movement and feeling -- after taking a hit in the Oct. 20 game against the Cleveland Browns. He has not played since. Less than a month later, he had his C-3 and C-4 vertebrae fused together.

He was in the final season of a two-year, $14 million contract when he was injured. As an unrestricted free agent, he is allowed to visit and be examined by any team.

The Patriots' interest in Finley makes sense. Tight end Rob Gronkowski is coming off ACL reconstruction. The other tight ends on their roster are former Packers draft pick D.J. Williams, Michael Hoomanawanui and rookies Justin Jones and Asa Watson.
The term is often used when it comes to football personnel -- "We need a No. 1."

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Matt Williamson of ESPN.com's Insider team attempts to quantify exactly what that means, listing out his criteria for what makes a true No. 1 pass-catcher Insider. Considering a formula of getting open, having the necessary strength and size, productivity and consistency, Williamson then ranks his top "No. 1" pass-catchers in the NFL.

Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is trumped by only one player -- and he's in Detroit.

"If healthy, Gronk is the perfect tight end, and frankly, he could be the most impressive tight end who has ever played this game," Williamson writes.

Williamson's piece sparks thoughts about Gronkowski and how the Patriots' offense takes on a different look when he's on the field. It also shines a brighter spotlight on the team's tight end personnel, which currently includes Gronkowski, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams. It's possible bigger receiver Mark Harrison could also be included in the mix.

While the Patriots have been active in free agency and appear to have improved overall, the greatest improvement might simply be Gronkowski's return to the field, whenever that may be.

New England Patriots season wrap-up

January, 22, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final power ranking: 4
Preseason power ranking: 6

Biggest surprise: How about a murder charge to a tight end who had previously been thought of as a centerpiece of the team? Aaron Hernandez's murder charge threatened to sink the Patriots' season before it even started, but in a credit to Bill Belichick, his staff and the players, it was hardly a distraction as they once again advanced to the AFC Championship Game. There were no on-field surprises that could come close to topping that.

.Biggest disappointment: Rob Gronkowski's knee injury Dec. 8. This falls into the wider-ranging category of “season-ending injuries to top players” and the Patriots had their fair share early in the season -- defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6), linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13), and starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (Oct. 27). But Gronkowski’s felt like a season-changer in some respects, deflating some of the optimism that had been built up at that point because the offense looked markedly different with him back on the field.

Biggest need: Re-signing cornerback Aqib Talib. The four-game stretch of football he played from Sept. 22 to Oct. 13 was as impressive as we’ve seen from a Patriots cornerback in recent memory, the highlight coming when he was matched up against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and held him without a catch before leaving in the third quarter with injury. The 2013 season showed how the Patriots’ defense is different with a healthy No. 1 matchup option like Talib, with the final piece of evidence coming in the AFC Championship Game when he left with a knee injury in the second quarter.

Team MVP: It has to be quarterback Tom Brady, with Talib, receiver Julian Edelman and kicker Stephen Gostkowski the other strong candidates. This was a “do more with less” type season for Brady, similar to 2006, and he willed the offense to productive results despite almost a complete overhaul. He’s the consummate leader, almost like another coach, and the Patriots don’t advance to the conference championship without him.

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Agent: Gronk's ACL surgery 'went very well'

January, 9, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski underwent surgery on his torn right ACL on Thursday, his agent said.

Noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed the procedure.

“Dr. Andrews said it went very well,” agent Drew Rosenhaus tweeted.

Gronkowski tore both his ACL and MCL in a game against the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 8. Surgery on the ACL was delayed to allow time for the MCL to heal.

The surgery gives Gronkowski a 6 1/2-month window until the projected start of 2014 training camp in late July.

Unique sight as players go to movies

December, 20, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- In shutting down the laptop and packing up the work bag around 12:15 p.m. today, it turned out to be good timing to see a most unique sight in departing Gillette Stadium:

Patriots players, as a group, were heading to the movies at nearby Patriot Place.

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One by one, they walked out of the large blue gate that separates the pavilion area outside of the team Hall of Fame from the Gillette Stadium playing field, before proceeding to elevators that brought them to the level of the nearby cinema. The theater itself is essentially a long Tom Brady touchdown pass away from the team's locker room.

Many of those shopping in the area quickly took out their phones to snap pictures, and one image stood out above all else -- head athletic trainer Jim Whalen pushing injured tight end Rob Gronkowski in a wheelchair, with Gronkowski's right knee/leg elevated.

As colleague Field Yates noted, sometimes trips like this can serve as a bonding experience, as long as they don't come at the expense of work. And at this point of the week, most of the Patriots' work is completed. Then again, the Jets tried something similar the night before a November game against the Bills, with a team excursion to Dave & Busters, but it didn't produce the desired result.

In the end, the idea of breaking routine, ever so slightly, comes down to a head coach's feel for his team.

Bill Belichick was expansive and engaging in his morning news conference, going into detail on a variety of topics. Players relayed in the locker room early this morning that Belichick has generally been pretty positive with them this week as well.

That seems to be a theme of the past few days.

After a tough loss to the Dolphins, and now a challenging road game at Baltimore on Sunday, the out-of-the-norm vibe has been notable at Gillette Stadium. This could, among other things, be geared toward keeping a younger team loose as the playoff stakes get higher.
Tom Brady  and Joe Flacco AP PhotoSunday's matchup between the Patriots and Ravens has playoff implications for both teams.
Whenever the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens meet, there is always something at stake. Sunday's clash at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, a rematch of the past two AFC Championship Games, is no different.

The Patriots (10-4), winners of three of their past four games, can clinch their fifth straight AFC East title with a win or a tie. The Ravens (8-6) can move one step closer to earning their sixth straight playoff berth with a victory, or they could watch their postseason hopes take a severe hit with a loss.

New England is the NFL's best team in December, winning 17 of its past 19 games in that month. The Ravens, however, are one of the best teams at home, posting a 39-8 record (.830) at M&T Bank Stadium since 2008.

ESPN.com NFL reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Jamison Hensley (Ravens) break down the showdown between these AFC powers:

Jamison Hensley: Mike, everyone knows the impact the loss of Rob Gronkowski has had on the Patriots' red zone offense. How will Tom Brady and the Patriots turn it around inside the 20-yard line?

Mike Reiss: Jamison, they were 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Dolphins, and now they go up against one of the NFL's best red zone defenses. That's not a great formula. One way to look at it is that if rookie receiver Josh Boyce holds on to one makeable catch in the end zone on third down in the first quarter, and the Patriots cap off the comeback like they had in prior weeks with Danny Amendola making a tough catch in the end zone on the final drive, we wouldn't even be talking about this. Instead, we'd be talking about their late-game magic. Then again, if tight end Michael Hoomanawanui didn't make a remarkable one-handed grab in the end zone for a 13-yard score, they might have been 0-for-4. So it's just a reminder that the margin for error is thin, which is also what the red zone is all about.

As for the Ravens, how are they doing it? To go from possibly out of the playoffs to a chance to win the AFC North with two wins to close out the season? Give us a feel for how this has happened.

Hensley: The Ravens have been riding a strong defense, kicker Justin Tucker and Joe Flacco's late-game heroics to get back into the playoff race. To be honest, I had written off the Ravens after they lost at Cleveland in the beginning of November. But this team has fought back to win four straight and are playing with more confidence than at any point this season. There has been a lot of criticism that Flacco hasn't lived up to his $120.6 million contract. While he'll never put up the elite quarterback numbers, he finds ways to win. His four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime this season is second only to Brady. And Flacco has led a game-winning drive the past two games. He is banged up right now after taking a hit to his knee in Detroit on "Monday Night Football."

This could lead the Ravens to run the ball more with Ray Rice. He has struggled all season but has shown some signs of being more productive over the past two games. The Ravens might want to try to attack the NFL's 31st-ranked run defense as well. What's been the biggest problem for the Patriots in stopping the run this year?

Reiss: A strong run defense is usually a staple of a Bill Belichick-coached team, but this year is different. A significant factor has been season-ending injuries to starting defensive tackles Vince Wilfork (Sept. 29, Achilles) and Tommy Kelly (Oct. 6, knee) and every-down linebacker Jerod Mayo (Oct. 13, pectoral muscle). That's a direct hit at the heart of a run defense, right up the middle, sort of like a baseball team losing its top pitcher, catcher and shortstop. Since that point, they've had to scheme around things; this staff has been coaching its tails off and the players have been doing their best while sometimes being asked to do things outside of their comfort zone. The other part of it is situational. For example, against Peyton Manning and the Broncos on Nov. 24, they played a sub defense the entire game and Denver was content to run against it and put up big numbers. That was a case where the Patriots gave up something (run defense) to gain something (better pass defense), which is what they've had to do this year because of the key losses.

Let's get back to Tucker a little bit, because I think it's a fascinating story. Patriots fans obviously remember Billy Cundiff from the AFC Championship in the 2011 season. Tell us more about Tucker and what he's done to become such an integral part of the team in replacing Cundiff the last two years. His postgame interview on "Monday Night Football" was one of the classics.

Hensley: Tucker has been the Ravens' Most Valuable Player. When you're saying a kicker is the MVP, you're usually not talking about a team contending for the playoffs. And the Ravens wouldn't have the hottest kicker in the NFL right now if not for that memorable -- or is that forgettable? -- miss by Cundiff in the AFC Championship Game. That led the Ravens to have an open competition at training camp the following year. Tucker clearly won the battle and hasn't tailed off since. What separates Tucker from other young kickers is his ability to convert in the clutch. He has six game-winning kicks in 30 career games. His confidence borders on being cocky, and he isn't afraid to show off swagger. Not too many kickers dance after making field goals. But that confidence has been big for the Ravens. Before that 61-yarder on "Monday Night Football," he went up to coach John Harbaugh and said: "I got this."

Speaking of confidence, what's the state of mind for these Patriots compared to past Pats teams at this time of the year? The Patriots are still fighting for a top seed, but there seems to be a lot of doubt nationally because of the close calls with Houston and Cleveland in addition to the loss at Miami.

Reiss: This Patriots team isn't short on confidence, but as Brady said, it's a club that doesn't have a lot of margin for error. They can beat anyone in the NFL, but also lose to any team in the NFL. To sum it up, this is a resilient team that has been hit hard by injuries to key players, and they fight and claw for 60 minutes, so if a team is going to beat them it's going to have to be a knockout. With two weeks remaining in the season, the Patriots are still in play for a first-round bye but also could face a Week 17 scenario where they need to win to even qualify for the playoffs. That's reflective of how this season has unfolded for them -- a lot of close calls that could have gone either way.

With the amount of turnover on defense, how have the Ravens been able to sustain on that side of the ball?

Hensley: The defense has been very good this season, ranking in the top 10 in yards allowed (ninth), points given up (seventh), third downs (third) and red zone (fourth). Without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, this is a different defense but not an inexperienced one. Daryl Smith has played better than Lewis did last season, making an impact against the pass as well as the run. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil has been an upgrade over Paul Kruger. Cornerback Jimmy Smith has gone from a first-round disappointment to the team's best defensive back. If this defense wants to be great, it has to find a way to finish better. Over the past three games, the Ravens have allowed four touchdowns in the final three minutes. That challenge is heightened when going against Brady, one of the NFL's best comeback kings.

Power Rankings: No. 4 New England

December, 10, 2013
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A weekly examination of the Patriots' ESPN.com Power Ranking:

Preseason: 6 | Last Week: 4 | ESPN.com Power Ranking since 2002

The Patriots remain in the No. 4 spot for the third straight week. They trail the Seahawks, Broncos and Saints in the rankings. A look at the voting shows that they received two third-place votes, one fourth-place vote, one fifth-place vote and two sixth-place votes.

Are they really the fourth-best team in the NFL?

I think it's generous right now, especially after the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending knee injury. But that doesn't mean the chances of being No. 1 when it counts most are necessarily eliminated.

The Patriots are in the hunt, and that's all most teams can ask for at this time of year. This is a week for them to recalibrate and, first and foremost, clinch the AFC East championship (which happens with a victory). Then the focus could intensify on potential playoff positioning.

The Patriots' remaining games are on the road against the Dolphins (16) and Ravens (14) before the season finale at home against the Bills (26).

Is Gronkowski's style of play sustainable?

December, 10, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tight end Rob Gronkowski is a unique football package.

At 6-foot-6 and a seemingly all-muscle 265 pounds, he's almost too fast and athletic for someone with such a build. He plays with reckless abandon and seldom leaves the field, and because of that and the beating every tight end takes in the NFL, we pondered these thoughts over the 24 hours since he was carted off with a season-ending knee injury: Is his style of play sustainable and will he ever be the same again?

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski and T.J. Ward
AP Photo/Steven SenneA hit to the knee by the Browns' T.J. Ward ended Rob Gronkowski's season.
It's only natural to wonder if all the injuries will catch up to Gronkowski. Whenever Gronkowski undergoes surgery on his right knee, it will be his sixth procedure since November 2012, when he was first sidelined with a broken left forearm. That almost certainly sets up a situation where 2014's training camp will be similar to 2013's as his readiness will be a top storyline.

Gronkowski's medical file, specifically his prior back injury, was the biggest concern for many teams when he was coming out of the University of Arizona in 2010. What's easy to forget is that he had proven to be one of the team's most durable players in his first two NFL seasons, seldom, if ever, missing a practice. He played in every game.

At that point, Gronkowski had mostly erased any medical-based doubts, and the Patriots obviously felt his style of play could hold up because they struck a contract extension with him through 2019.

Now the picture has changed.

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Is Rob Gronkowski's playing style to blame for his injury problems?

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The forearm injury in November 2012 was a freak occurrence, coming while he was playing on the field-goal protection unit late in the contest. Few could have seen the issues ahead after that.

Still, he came back strong this year and looked like the "same old Gronk." That is, until the knee injury knocked him out, the result of a hit that could have happened to anyone. More bad luck.

So is Gronkowski's style of play keeping him off the field?

Fair question, but the more we consider it, we think the reason the 24-year-old Gronkowski finds himself in this position is less about the way he plays the game and more about an unfortunate run of bad luck and misfortune.
In a season that’s been defined by resiliency in the face of season-ending injuries to key players, the Patriots might be up against their most difficult challenge yet after losing Rob Gronkowski.

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Which player out for the season will the Patriots miss most down the stretch and in the postseason

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The Patriots have lost captains Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly to season-ending injuries. Beyond playing without those four (soon to be five when Gronk gets placed on injured reserve), the Patriots have had to work in extensive new personnel in the receiving corps (including three rookie wideouts) and manage through a number of ailments in the secondary. Despite all of that, the Patriots stand at 10-3, just one win away from their fifth straight AFC East title and in control of their own fate for a top-two seed in the conference.

On Monday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick echoed the obvious: This group of players is a particularly resilient bunch.

“No question about it,” he said. “Very tough minded and determined group that even though as you said at times the deck has been stacked against us or it’s been things that we've had to overcome, they haven’t ever made any excuses or tried to back down from the challenge.

SportsNation

Which Patriots need to step up most to make up for the loss of Rob Gronkowski for the season?

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“They just try to meet it head-on with the best effort they can. Sometimes it’s been good enough, sometimes it hasn't,” he continued. “The attitude, the ability to go out there and fight and persevere and deal with whatever the circumstances are and not really get too fazed by it, but just try to deal with it, has been very impressive by the entire team this year, especially with some young guys and newer faces on the team.”

There’s no telling precisely what the final three games of this season and postseason will have in store for the Patriots, but if they've taught us anything through 13 games, it’s to never count them out.

“Overall, they've all embraced whatever the opportunity is, even though it may not look too bright,” Belichick said. “They embrace the opportunity, try to go out there and make the best of it.”

Belichick: Replacing Gronk a team effort

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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Here are some sound bites from Patriots coach Bill Belichick's conference call with the media Monday morning:

On how offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did in adjusting on the fly without Rob Gronkowski: "You have to go into every game with some type of backup plan for everybody. Certainly as it relates to your personnel groups, like at the tight end position, you use more wide receivers, or the wide receiver position, if that were to get thin, more backs or more tight ends. You have to be ready to handle all that. But I thought that the offensive coaches and the players did a good job adjusting to that; they went into some different personnel groupings, but those are things that we've practiced and we've prepared for."

On the fill-in tight ends, Matthew Mulligan and James Develin: "I think both of those guys, kind of like we talked about last week with James, but put Matt in that category, too -- they're both role players in our offense. Sometimes their roles are a little bit bigger or a little bit smaller from game to game; it depends on the game plan and the situation. But when they're called on, they've been very dependable. [They're] both smart guys that are tough and really compete well and aren't afraid to get their hands dirty and do some of the tougher jobs that need to be done on the football field."

Is this the type of thing where you can have one player replace Rob Gronkowski, or will it take multiple people? "I think Rob, similar to the conversations we had with [linebacker] Jerod [Mayo] and [nose tackle] Vince [Wilfork], I don't think too many teams have players of that caliber at any position to put in another Rob or another Vince Wilfork or 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 yesterday offensively. More four-receiver sets, three receivers and a tight end, or something like that. Or it might result in the tight ends getting more plays or some combination thereof. However that may be, it may change from game to game. Obviously, we -- unfortunately -- had to play without Rob for games at the beginning of the season. ... We dealt with that already this year."

Are you able to draw on what you guys did without Rob during the first six weeks? "I'd like to think there's going to be some carryover there. Not only is it the first six weeks of the season, but the entire training camp, as well. I think that's the way we practiced and played most of the year, including the preseason -- that's 10 games. It was great to have him back and he was obviously a big contributor for us, because he's an outstanding player. I hope that his situation isn't as serious as what it might be, but if it is, then I'm sure it'll be some combination of what we've already done this year. Or maybe because we have a few different players and we're at a different point of the season, it may be some different things, too."

Upon Further Review: Patriots Week 14

December, 9, 2013
12/09/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A review of four hot issues following the New England Patriots' 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns:

Life without tight end Rob Gronkowski: Players seemed to be coming to grips with the fact they would be without Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the season after he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee Sunday. So the question becomes: "What next?" The Patriots have tight ends Matthew Mulligan and Michael Hoomanawanui on the roster, and could re-sign D.J. Williams, who was released last week. Hoomanawanui has been out since sustaining a knee injury Nov. 18 in Carolina, but appears closer to a return. Regardless, the Patriots won't be the same without Gronkowski, who has unique talents, so offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely have to recalibrate the attack.

Slow starts remain a problem: The Patriots have talked at length about getting off to better starts, but they haven't been able to do so. That should continue to be a point of emphasis as the Patriots are vying to clinch the AFC East championship. As defensive end Rob Ninkovich said after Sunday's comeback, "Not the way you want to win, but we'll take it."

Ridley eased back into the mix: Lead running back Stevan Ridley was charted on the field for 17 snaps (including penalties) in his return to action after he was a healthy scratch Dec. 1 in Houston after multiple fumbles. While Shane Vereen figures to continue to take the majority of snaps at the position, Ridley is now officially back in the rotation along with LeGarrette Blount and possibly Brandon Bolden (inactive Sunday versus Cleveland).

Defense giving up points: Since the bye weekend on Nov. 10, the Patriots have given up 24, 31, 31 and 26 points, with the defense showing vulnerability in multiple areas. Against Cleveland, the big play hurt them as they failed to create a turnover, which is their trademark. Next up are road games at Miami and Baltimore, and they need those turnovers to return to form.

Gronkowski injury hits teammates hard

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It is the type of moment where time seems to stop, an eerie quiet taking over a stadium with 60,000-plus in attendance as the cart comes out for an injured player. Emotions of teammates swirl.

“It’s like you’re in a bad dream,” Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater said, “and you’re hoping you wake up and it wasn’t really happening.”

It happened to the New England Patriots and tight end Rob Gronkowski on Sunday.

The potential season-changing moment occurred with 8:36 remaining in the third quarter of the Patriots’ 27-26 comeback victory, Gronkowski’s right knee taking a direct but legal hit from Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward.

As Gronkowski lay on the ground, medical staff surrounding him and calling for the cart, several of his teammates were devastated. Some, like Slater, began to pray.

“My heart is broken for Rob and having to see him go through that, seeing him in pain, and realizing what he has been through in his young career, it’s heartbreaking, it really is,” Slater said.

“You can’t help but think about that. They always say ‘injuries are a part of the game, injuries are a part of the game,’ but that doesn’t mean you get used to it. Guys are out here putting their bodies on the line week in and week out. ... That kid has been through so much, and he’s worked his butt off to overcome a lot of different things at a young age.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe/Getty ImagesGillette Stadium fell silent after Rob Gronkowski suffered what likely will be a season-ending injury.
“He means so much to this football team, not only what he does on the field, but in the locker room -- his presence. He brings a childlike joy to the locker room.”

Slater’s emotions captured a unique mood in the Patriots’ locker room after their remarkable comeback win.

There was elation at accomplishing what looked like the impossible after trailing 26-14 with 2:39 remaining in the fourth quarter. But there also was the realization that they would now be chasing their Super Bowl hopes without a key member of the team, which has season-altering possibilities, as the Patriots fear Gronkowski tore his ACL, with an MRI scheduled for Monday to confirm the injury, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Gronkowski’s season got off to a delayed start, as he missed the first six games while recovering from offseason back and forearm surgeries. He seemed to be hitting his stride the past few weeks and had been a huge addition to the Patriots' offense.

Players from both teams came over to Gronkowski on the cart to offer encouragement before he waved to the crowd. Teammate Matthew Mulligan had helped Gronkowski onto the cart.

“Obviously, there is a lot of emotion there, from him and from me; I just wanted to be there in any way I possibly could,” Mulligan said of the moment. “When you have a good player like him, and you know all the struggles that he’s gone through already, I think it’s catastrophic and everybody feels it.

“You spend so much time with these men on this team, a lot of times more than your family. When something happens that’s out of the ordinary, and it’s a difficult situation, you feel for him. It’s just like your brother. It was very difficult to watch. That’s why you go over and try to pick him up any way you possibly can -- whether it’s physically [or something else]. He would do the same for me.”

Transitioning from the injury back to the game naturally was a challenge for Patriots players.

“We’re all human, so we have different emotions that come out,” said Mulligan, the No. 2 tight end who elevated into Gronkowski’s role after the injury.

“The first thing I thought was everything he went through to get back out here, and how hard he’s worked,” said safety Devin McCourty, another of the team’s captains.

“To see him take a shot and go down, it kind of kills us a little bit,” running back Shane Vereen added. “But we know he’ll be back; he’s a fighter.”

It’s unlikely Gronkowski will be back in 2013, which was a reality many players were wrapping their heads around at the same time they were dissecting an improbable victory.

“When it first happens, you’re like, ‘It’s not real. It’s not really happening,’” Slater said of Gronkowski being carted off. “But as you see him out on the field, in pain, and it was a tough pill to swallow.”

Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts on the New England Patriots' stunning 27-26 comeback win over the Cleveland Browns:

What it means: Everything. Not the outcome of the game, which was another amazing Patriots comeback that was only solidified after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff was short with a 58-yard attempt at the final gun. Tight end Rob Gronkowski being carted off the field midway through the third quarter with a serious leg injury is a season changer for New England. Gronkowski is that much of a difference-maker. In the postgame news conference Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "Rob was taken to the hospital for a observation and evaluation on his injury. That's all I have on that."

Measuring Gronkowski's impact: Since his return to action on Oct. 20, Gronkowski almost single-handedly changed the Patriots' offense. The Patriots were 22nd in points per game before Gronkowski returned; they were seventh entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 30th in red zone efficiency without Gronkowski; they were 11th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 19th in passing yards per game without Gronkowski; they were 10th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 16th in first downs per game before Gronkowski returned; they were fifth entering Sunday's game.

Where the Patriots go from here without Gronkowski: Assuming tests reveal what many assume -- that Gronkowski will be out for the season with a leg/knee injury -- the Patriots won't be able to find a player to replace his production. They'll need to find new ways to create offense, such as what we saw in parts of the second half with running back Shane Vereen becoming a greater part of the passing offense. From a pure 1-for-1 personnel standpoint, tight end D.J. Williams -- who was released on Wednesday -- could be brought back to add another tight end, along with Matthew Mulligan and recovering Michael Hoomanawanui (knee).

Unbelievable comeback: Gronkowski's injury cast a cloud over a remarkable comeback. How do the Patriots keep digging themselves into an early hole, when it seems the game is lost, only to pull it out? It's one of their most redeeming qualities -- they are hard to knock out and play all 60 minutes (and sometimes beyond). This was simply stunning, requiring an onside kick to be recovered with one minute remaining -- and the benefit of what looked like a generous 29-yard pass-interference penalty -- to set up the winning touchdown. Wow. Patriots fans have seen some of the ugliest football the Patriots have ever played this season ... and also some of the most remarkable comebacks.

Where's the protection? When considering why the Patriots' offense struggled as much as it did, after crediting the Browns' defense, one area to look at from a New England perspective is inconsistent offensive line play. Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure at various points in the game. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins, arguably the two best linemen on the team, were beaten for sacks.

Stock watch -- coaching staff: Falling: One week after being praised for its in-game adjustments, the Patriots' staff finds itself in this category, as the Patriots sputtered out of the gate with another slow start. Something isn't getting through.

Ridley back in the mix with 17 snaps: After he was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston because of ball-security issues, running back Stevan Ridley was active and used as part of a committee with Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. Ridley was the third player in the mix, as we counted him on the field for 17 snaps (including penalties).

What's next: The Patriots travel to South Florida to face the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 15 (1 p.m. ET).

Quick-hit thoughts after third quarter

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
3:50
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Entering the final quarter of play, the New England Patriots trail the Cleveland Browns 19-11. Passing along quick-hit notes and observations from the third quarter:

1. Browns won't go away. The Browns offense struck first in the third quarter, as quarterback Jason Campbell hooked up with tight end Gary Barnidge for a 40-yard score. On the play, cornerback Aqib Talib was flagged for an illegal use of hands to the face penalty, though it was declined. The Browns' two-point conversion try failed. After a Patriots field goal late in the quarter, Campbell hit talented second-year wide receiver Josh Gordon for an 80-yard score, as he was able to beat Talib in man coverage.

2. Gronkowski leaves game. Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski left the game after catching a pass and taking a shot directly to his right leg. He appeared to be in substantial pain and was immediately carted from the field. If the injury turns out to be as serious at it looked, it would be a critical loss for the Patriots offense, which had begun to click in recent weeks. Gronkowski is out for the rest of the game.

3. Boyce stepping up. With injuries to rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, Josh Boyce has been thrust into a larger offensive role. He's shown up well with three catches for 49 yards.

4. Offense answers late. It was the Shane Vereen show late in the third quarter, as he followed up a 50-yard catch with another catch and then a 6-yard rushing score. The drive was the Patriots' best, by far, of the day, and may be just what the team needs to kick-start a fourth-quarter comeback. The Patriots went for two following the touchdown, with Tom Brady hooking up with Julian Edelman to make it a one-score game.

5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the third quarter: center Ryan Wendell (holding) and cornerback Aqib Talib (illegal use of hands to the face; declined).
videoHOUSTON -- Here's one way to sum up the New England Patriots' offense in recent weeks: "What a difference a Gronk makes."

While Rob Gronkowski officially returned to action on Oct. 20 against the New York Jets, he has only recently returned to top form and it's no coincidence that the Patriots' attack has started to click as that has happened. The latest example came in Sunday's 34-31 victory against the Houston Texans when Gronkowski finished with six catches for 127 yards and one touchdown.

"I mean, Gronk is one of the top tight ends in the league," receiver Julian Edelman said. "Anytime you have 'Big Gronk' out there, it definitely makes the team better."

In this case, it's more about the "Full Gronk."

It took Gronkowski a while to get to this point after missing all of training camp and the first six games of the season, so his first three to four games essentially served as his preseason-within-the-season. The breakthrough has just recently occurred.

In the Nov. 24 victory against the Denver Broncos, Gronkowski played every snap, which was the first sign that he's at top form. He nearly did the same Sunday against the Texans, with the top highlight coming on a 50-yard catch early in the third quarter that helped spark an offense that had been inconsistent in the first half. Gronkowski dragged two defenders along for a ride at the end of the catch-and-run. Then there was his 23-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter when he plucked a low throw from quarterback Tom Brady over the middle.

"The touchdown was a great play. It was an adjustment," Brady said. "He was covered early and wheeled out of the route and made a great catch. The catch in the third quarter to drag those guys down the field was awesome too. He made a great play on a catch-and-run there."

Gronkowski appeared to get his foot/ankle caught when tackled in the fourth quarter. He finished the game and didn't appear to have any issues with it after the game.

That's good news because after seeing what Gronkowski means to the offense, it would be a major setback if he was sidelined for any period of time.

"Whenever he gets going, the rest of us get going," Brady said. "I hope he realizes the importance for him to be able to play that kind of style for us. It really helps everyone."

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