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.
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.”
Here's a look at the other storylines to emerge from the game.
Pats keep pace in playoff hunt. Though the Patriots did not clinch a playoff berth on Sunday (because both the Ravens and Dolphins won), they remain three games up in the division and still hold the AFC’s second-best record. They can clinch an AFC East crown with a win next Sunday in Miami.
Vereen shines. Running back Shane Vereen had a record-setting day, establishing franchise bests for running backs with 12 catches and 153 receiving yards. He’s been a critical offensive cog since his return in Week 11.
Gostkowski comes through again. Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski came through in a big way once again, drilling another 50-yard field goal and executing a strong onside kick late in the game to give his team the ball back and the chance to win. Said Danny Amendola of the onside kick, “It was fantastic. Those specialists work so hard on their craft and kicks, and I’m sure Gost was really excited about it. It was a big play -- play of the game.”
Gordon bothers secondary. A primary concern for the Patriots secondary coming into the game was Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon shined again, besting Aqib Talib in man coverage for an 80-yard score and finishing with 151 receiving yards and a touchdown.
Late flag comes into focus. Browns cornerback Leon McFadden was flagged for pass interference late in the game, a call that gave the Patriots the ball at Cleveland’s 1-yard line. McFadden didn’t appear to make much contact on the play, saying after the game, “I didn’t feel like there was pass interference, but all I can do is go back and look at the film and make corrections.”
Siliga for Sopoaga. The Patriots made something of a personnel shift on defense, with second-year defensive tackle Sealver Siliga playing over veteran Isaac Sopoaga. Sopoaga didn’t enter the game until the fourth quarter, playing minimal snaps. Siliga notched six tackles in total.
Brady (quietly?) goes over 400 yards. If such a thing as a quiet 400-yard passing performance exists, Tom Brady accomplished it on Sunday. Brady threw for 418 yards, his second-highest total of the season. He added two touchdown passes, upping his total to 21 for the season.
Belichick extends record streak. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has led his team to 11 straight seasons with 10 or more wins, extending his own NFL record. The Patriots also improved to 41-6 in December since 2001, best in the NFL.
Ryan Allen: Punter continues to excel from a situational standpoint; his 53-yarder in the first quarter reflects his strong work.
Stephen Gostkowski: Kicker hits a long field goal and then executes perfectly on an onside kick to set up the game-winning touchdown drive.
Shane Vereen: Running back is the team's best skill-position player, at one point making all three plays on a 72-yard scoring drive.
Coaching staff: When a team continues to come out flat in the first half, it starts with the coaching staff.
Nate Solder and offensive line: Left tackle is beaten for a sack and later a pressure, which highlights some overall struggles up front in pass protection.
Aqib Talib/Devin McCourty/Steve Gregory: Patriots give up touchdown passes of 80 and 40 yards after breakdowns in the secondary. While there is some good play in the secondary, those two plays are big in a low-scoring game.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A slow start to the 2013 regular season had many wondering if the turnover in offensive personnel would be just too much for the Patriots to overcome.
Six games into the season, the Patriots were 22nd in the NFL in scoring; no team in the NFL scored more points than the Patriots during the 2012 season, which ended in a near trip to the Super Bowl.
But that all changed when tight end Rob Gronkowski returned to the lineup, as he came back in Week 7 after missing extended time in his recovery from offseason back and forearm surgeries.
In the six games following his return, the Patriots skyrocketed to sixth in the NFL in scoring, including racking up the second-most points in the league during that time. Gronkowski racked up 37 catches, 560 yards and four touchdowns, looking perhaps as mobile and athletic as ever.
The optimism surrounding his return was squashed on Sunday when Gronkowski took a hit to his right leg in the third quarter of New England's 27-26 win against the Cleveland Browns, immediately falling to the ground in substantial pain. He will have an MRI on Monday, but initial reports are that it's a torn ACL.
How will New England's offense look with Gronkowski out?
Here's a look at the offense both with and without its dynamic tight end.
The Patriots have been less reliant on two-tight end sets this season with Aaron Hernandez no longer a member of the organization, but a theme that has persisted from 2012 with Gronkowski on the field is an ability to rely on an up-tempo attack.
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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).
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).
Gronkowski, who suffered the injury in Sunday's wild 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns, will undergo an MRI on Monday, according to the source.
FoxSports earlier reported that the Patriots believed it was a torn ACL.
New England announced during the game that Gronkowski suffered an injury to his right leg. Patriots coach Bill Belichick revealed after the game that Gronkowski was taken to a hospital.
"Rob was taken to the hospital for observation and evaluation on his injury," Belichick said. "That's all I have on it."
Gronkowski suffered the injury in the third quarter after hauling in a pass up the seam from Tom Brady. The two-time Pro Bowler took a direct hit to his right knee by Browns safety T.J. Ward and fell to the ground, clearly in pain.
"It was a decision I made just to make a tackle on a big man and unfortunately he got hurt, but if I would've hit up high, there's a chance I would get fined and all that other stuff. I'm just being safe," Ward said.
Medical personnel immediately came to Gronkowski's side, and he was eventually taken off the field on a cart. The burly tight end was unable to put weight on his right leg as he moved from the ground to the cart.
Uninspiring performance from Patriots: Dropped passes. Missed blocking assignments. Substitution issues on the sideline with the coaching staff and players that lead to 12-men-on-the-field penalties and general confusion. Simply put, it’s been uninspiring football from the Patriots. At the same time, credit also goes to the Browns in some areas (e.g. D'Qwell Jackson's range on an interception of a throw that was forced), who certainly haven’t quit after last week’s loss to the Jaguars.
Not as much about adjustments as execution: Unlike last week, when the Patriots altered their offensive plan at halftime, this game doesn’t strike us as much about being adjustment-based. It’s more about execution. There are opportunities there if they can make the plays. The Patriots looked like one of the NFL's worst teams in the first half.
Charting Ridley’s usage: The Patriots have eased running back Stevan Ridley back into the mix after he was a healthy scratch last week because of ball-security issues. He played five snaps in the first half.
Siliga’s presence highlights focus on interior rush defense: One of the areas prioritized defensively during the week of practice was the Browns’ inside running game. Along those lines, the Patriots started nose tackle Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325) over Joe Vellano (6-2, 300), electing for more bulk and power (and choosing Siliga over veteran Isaac Sopoaga to provide it). That was a notable personnel shift, and the results have been good. The inside running game, outside of the first few plays of the game, hasn’t been a big factor.
Closer look at cornerback usage: The Patriots started Aqib Talib and Logan Ryan at cornerback in the base defense, with Talib shadowing receiver Josh Gordon all over the field. When the Browns go to a three-receiver package, the Patriots are taking Ryan off the field and adding cornerbacks Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington as the fourth and fifth defensive backs. Something different, with Talib and Ryan two of the bright spots in a half with few of them.
Patriots open the half with ball: After winning the opening toss and deferring the choice to the second half, the Patriots will receive the opening kickoff of the half.
1. Talib shadowing Gordon. There's been no hotter receiver in football over the past two weeks than Browns wideout Josh Gordon, who has surpassed 200 yards in consecutive games. Thus far, Aqib Talib has held Gordon without a catch. That's a matchup worth watching all day.
2. Hightower strong early. After a recent stretch of play that included struggles against the Texans, linebacker Dont'a Hightower started strong against Cleveland. He's wearing the green dot on the back of his helmet, meaning he is the on-field point of communication for the defense, and he has stepped up in both pass and run coverage early on. He already has seven tackles.
3. Blount starts at running back. Though Stevan Ridley is active after sitting out last week, LeGarrette Blount was on the field for the first play of the game. Blount figures to sustain the workload he picked up last week in Ridley's absence, with Shane Vereen continuing to play a prominent role when the team goes to its up-tempo attack. Ridley has not yet played.
4. Brady picked by Jackson. The slow start for the Patriots offense has continued, as after a poor opening drive, quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted by Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on the team's second drive. Brady has been intercepted in the first half in consecutive games.
5. Penalty box. The following Patriots were flagged for penalties during the first quarter: team defense (12 men on the field).
Dennard appeared to be rolled up on at the conclusion of a running play. After receiving attention from the medical staff on the field, Dennard was able to get up on his own power before heading to the locker room for further evaluation.
He was listed as questionable to play in this game due to a knee injury that had cost him two of the previous three games.
UPDATE: Dennard was back on the field midway through the second quarter.