1. The Patriots increased their usage of the four-receiver package after Rob Gronkowski left the game with a knee injury, and they used it for 15 snaps in the fourth quarter, the majority coming in the final two drives when they were in hurry-up. That brought Austin Collie on to the field as a fourth receiver. Collie had only played two snaps before the final three drives of the game when he was on for 13. That made the performance similar to his work against the Saints on Oct. 13 when he was more of a factor late.
2. Can't say enough about the back-to-back fourth-quarter performances of kicker Stephen Gostkowski the last two weeks -- field goals from 53, 53, 50 and a successful “middle bunt” onside kick to help produce an improbable victory.
3. On Josh Gordon's 34-yard end-around (5:07 remaining), a handful of Patriots defenders pulled up as they got close to Gordon, perhaps thinking he would go out of bounds. It was unusual to see linebackers Jamie Collins and Brandon Spikes, among others, to be playing so tentative at such a critical time in the game.
4. Credit linebacker Dont'a Hightower with an assist for producing the intentional grounding penalty on Jason Campbell (4:12 remaining) as he rocked running back Fozzy Whittaker to the ground within the legal 5-yard zone; that was where Campbell wanted to go with the football. While it was a questionable penalty, the play highlighted from this viewpoint why Hightower was more of a factor than he has been in recent weeks.
5. Perhaps tentative to blitz because they were burned on Gordon's 80-yard touchdown in the third quarter, the Patriots sent just the standard four rushers (Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Andre Carter, Joe Vellano) on third-and-17 with 4:06 remaining. The Browns offensive line kept an extremely clean pocket and Campbell had plenty of time to step into a 19-yard low strike to Gordon (Aqib Talib in coverage). The lack of pressure hurt the Patriots at various points in the game, perhaps none more than that play.
6. On the Patriots touchdown drive to slice the deficit to 26-21, completions to Julian Edelman of 23 and 19 yards gave the march a similar feel to the game-winning drive against the Saints on Oct. 13.
7. Count me among the crowd who didn't see enough to call pass interference on cornerback Leon McFadden on the Patriots' game-winning drive, giving them the ball at the 1. Not enough contact there from this viewpoint to make that call.
8. Total time of game: 3 hours, 41 minutes. That's the team's longest non-overtime game of the season, as only four of 13 contests have been three hours or less.
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?
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.
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.
1. Similar to the second quarter, when the Patriots pulled left guard Logan Mankins to create play-action, it led to a sack. There was pressure on both the right side where Mankins pulled, and also the blindside, where left tackle Nate Solder was beaten by Jabaal Sheard. The degree of difficulty in making those plays work almost makes one wonder if they are worth calling so regularly.
2. The Patriots' inability to consistently pressure with the four-man rush, which was in contrast to the Browns, showed up on Cleveland's first drive of the quarter. Jason Campbell was never touched. His comfort in the pocket contributed to him making some on-target throws -- first to Davone Bess on third-and-8 (with 11:18 remaining) and then to tight end Jordan Cameron for 21 yards on first-and-10. He made it look easy, in part because of the lack of pressure.
3. On tight end Gary Barnidge's 40-yard touchdown catch-and-run, safety Devin McCourty took a poor angle on the play, with receiver Josh Gordon's position on the field creating an obstacle. Still, that's a play a safety can't make. McCourty has been excellent for the most part this season as that play stood out as uncharacteristic for him.
4. As for the illegal hands to the face penalty on cornerback Aqib Talib on the Barnidge touchdown, it looked like Gordon, the receiver, easy could have also been called for ripping Talib down by the facemask with his left hand. That was one play that highlighted an overall theme from the day -- inconsistent officiating in which neither team really knew what it was getting because some obvious penalties were let go while some marginal infractions were called.
5. On the play in which Rob Gronkowski was injured (8:36 remaining), safety T.J. Ward's hit was within the rules, although watching it multiple times makes one wonder if the NFL will consider altering the rules in the years to come to further protect defenseless/vulnerable receivers. Very tough to watch, but at the same time, this has always been a game with violent collisions and it was just last week that we saw Patriots players getting chopped down at the line of scrimmage by Texans players going low. I don't think Ward had intent to injure, and he was also one of the Browns players who exchanged a handshake with Gronkowski before he was carted off (along with defensive tackle Phil Taylor and quarterback Brian Hoyer). Could Ward have tackled a bit higher? Yes, but at the same time, that could have given Gronkowski a better chance to run through him.
6. The ensuing play, quarterback Tom Brady's fumble, was probably partially a result of Brady's frustration to that point as he was just trying too hard to make something happen after right tackle Will Svitek was pushed back into the pocket by Paul Kruger. Brady usually eats that football with the mindset of “living to play another down.”
7. The Patriots' sub packages continued to have issues with the screen pass, surrendering a 13-yard gain on third-and-12 (7:24 remaining). On this play, the Patriots were in their dime and rushed four, so they needed second level defenders like linebacker Dane Fletcher and safety Duron Harmon to disengage and make a tackle -- or linemen to chase down the play from behind -- but they couldn't. Cornerback Alfonzo Dennard was also locked up by receiver Greg Little. While the Browns get some credit for execution, the Patriots' defense should be able to play it better than that.
8. On Gordon's 80-yard touchdown catch-and-run, the Patriots were in their base 3-4 alignment against the Browns' two-tight end set. At the snap, safety McCourty rotated down into the box on tight end Jordan Cameron, and left to right motion from tight end Barnridge also drew safety Steve Gregory down a few yards and to the defensive left side. Both tight ends released in pass routes, drawing McCourty and Gregory, and it looked like the Patriots had their linebackers coming on a six-man blitz, with Brandon Spikes responsible for the running back. That left Talib one-on-one and Gordon made them pay. That's the risk of blitzing; the defense is vulnerable on the back end if it doesn't get there.
9. The three-play, 72-yard scoring drive, in which running back Shane Vereen made all three plays (2 receptions, 1 rush), was a good reflection of how Vereen can be a tough matchup against linebackers in the passing game. That's a matchup the Patriots regularly look to exploit, especially now with Gronkowski on injured reserve as Vereen becomes one of their most dynamic weapons. The 6-yard touchdown run was well blocked, particularly by left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins.
10. Extra points: Safety Nate Ebner was close to a punt block as he surged in untouched with 5:31 remaining in the quarter. … Josh Boyce's 22-yard catch-and-run (5:19 remaining) was initially sprung by a low block from receiver Danny Amendola. … Maybe as a result of limiting his additional snaps because of an ankle injury, offensive tackle Will Svitek wasn't part of the field-goal protection unit, as guard Josh Kline took his spot. ... Running back LeGarrette Blount deserved an “up” for his performance, which included a 32-yard catch-and-run (2:53 remaining) in which he made linebacker D'Qwell Jackson miss in the open field to pick up the final 23 yards.
1. If fullback James Develin keeps making catches like he did up the right sideline -- a 31-yard gain with outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo in coverage (11:47 remaining) -- he’ll be a bigger part of the plans of how the team moves forward without tight end Rob Gronkowski. Develin initially lined up in the offensive backfield, motioned out to the right, before running an out-and-up route on the right sideline in which he fought through an initial jam. Develin looked like he was banged up, in some form, on the play and was looked at by the medical staff immediately after. But he later returned to the game.
2. We’ve seen several plays this season where the Patriots pull their guards to create play-action, and the results have been mixed. One of the downers came with 10:53 remaining in the second quarter when left guard Logan Mankins had a tough block coming from left to right on Mingo, and couldn’t get enough of him as Brady was sacked. That play ultimately set up a third-and-18 and led to a punt.
3. This was one of defensive end/outside linebacker Rob Ninkovich's better games, as there were notable plays in the pass rush (good outside move on Mitchell Schwartz in the first quarter) and against the run. In the latter category, some of Ninkovich’s best work came with 8:59 left in the quarter when he dropped fullback Chris Ogbonnaya for a 1-yard loss. Ninkovich showed solid control and discipline at the snap, read the handoff, disengaged from Schwartz, then knifed his body into the middle to make the strong tackle. Also on that play, Sealver Siliga's ability to hold his ground stood out again.
4. Overall, just not a very sure-handed performance. Almost every player was responsible for at least drop and some were easy catches. Rookie receiver Josh Boyce, for example, looked like he was thinking run-after-the-catch before he did the all-important catching part on a short pass (7:04 remaining).
5. Credit to the Browns for matching the Patriots when it came to situational football at the end of the second quarter, with Josh Gordon's scoop-it-off-the-turf third-down catch one of the underrated plays of the game for them. The Browns also avoided a turnover throughout the game, which is another big part of the potential winning formula when playing the Patriots.
6. The Patriots did something different on their kickoff return unit, aligning a smaller player (running back Shane Vereen) at the same level of the wedge (Develin and tight end Matthew Mulligan), as they sacrificed some size on the unit with returners Matthew Slater and Boyce back deep. On Dec. 1 in Houston, they had tight end D.J. Williams in that role and he could assume it again after re-signing this week.
The team also officially re-signed tight end D.J. Williams, as Mike Reiss reported earlier today.
Gronkowski becomes the fifth starter to land on injured reserve this season, joining nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
He left the team's game on Sunday in the third quarter after taking a hit to his right knee from Browns safety T.J. Ward.
Gronkowski played in seven games this season, totaling 39 catches, 592 yards and four touchdowns.
By re-signing Williams, the Patriots add another veteran reserve at the position. The team also has Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan and fullback James Develin, who has taken reps at the position at times this season.
FALL RIVER, Mass. -- An attorney for a so-called "right-hand man" of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez wants more information from state prosecutors about the accessory to murder charge his client faces.
Ernest Wallace's lawyers filed the request Monday in Fall River Superior Court ahead of a brief hearing.
Wallace has pleaded not guilty to accessory to murder after the fact and is being held on $500,000 cash bail. Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to murder in the death of Odin Lloyd, a 27-year-old semi-professional football player.
Prosecutors say Wallace and associate Carlos Ortiz were with Hernandez and Lloyd on the June night Lloyd was killed. They say Wallace fled to Florida after the killing.
The defense wants more specifics on how Wallace's alleged actions helped Hernandez.
The prosecution's response is due Jan 9.
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The Patriots offense will be much less explosive without Rob Gronkowski
According to ESPN and Media reports, Rob Gronkowski suffered a season-ending ACL and MCL tear after being upended by safety T.J. Ward in the third quarter of yesterday’s game. This is a significant blow to the Patriots, who came back to beat the Browns and secure their 11th consecutive season with at least 10 wins.
What Gronk means to the Pats Offense
The Patriots go back to "life without Gronk" which was not a pretty sight the first time around this season. The Patriots offense ranked among the league's worst the first six weeks of the year when they last played without the tight end.
The Patriots are second in the league in points per game since Gronkowski made his season debut in Week 7, scoring over 11 more points per game than they did in the first six weeks of the season.
They ranked in the top five in most offensive categories with him in the lineup this season.
The Red Zone
The Patriots have also been much more effective in the red zone. The Patriots scored a touchdown on 68.8 percent of their red zone trips this season with Gronkowski on the field. When he was inactive in the first six weeks of the season, New England scored a touchdown on 40.9 percent of red zone possessions.
Since Gronkowski’s forearm injury in Week 11 of last season, he has missed 11 of the Patriots next 20 games (including playoffs) during that span.
Is Brady better with Gronk?
Since Gronk entered the league in 2010, Tom Brady has been significantly more effective with Gronkowski on the field. Through Week 13 of 2013, Brady has a 78.5 Total QBR with Gronkowski on the field. Brady has a 59.0 QBR without Gronk on the field. Brady has thrown 5.1 touchdowns per interception with Gronkowski on the field. That ratio drops to 2.2 touchdowns per interception with Gronkowski on the sideline.
This season, the connection between Brady and Gronkowski was not as strong as their first three years together. From 2010 to 2012, Brady threw only two interceptions to go along with 38 touchdowns when targeting Gronk.
This season, Brady threw four interceptions when targeting Gronk to go along with only only four touchdowns. Brady completed 59.1 percent of his passes to Gronkowski this year after completing 72.2 percent of his passes to Gronkowski in their first three seasons together.
That’s the word from ESPN officiating expert Gerry Austin, a two-time Super Bowl referee.
“The best answer on that play would have been no call at all,” Austin said Monday.
The flag was thrown by field judge Dyrol Prioleau, though, which gave New England a first-and-goal at the 1 with 40 seconds left. New England scored the game-winning touchdown on the next play.
Austin said both McFadden and rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce were hand-checking as they ran down the field, but the key phrase is in Austin’s mind is whether either “materially affected” the other’s ability to catch the ball.
“From what I saw on television, I do not think either did,” Austin said.
Thus, any contact was not a penalty.
“Both the defender and receiver were hand-checking each other all the way down the field,” Austin said. “I did not see anything on that play that was beyond that.”
Prioleau also threw the flag on Jordan Poyer for a hit after Julian Edelman caught the Patriots second-last touchdown with 1:01 left.
Referee Jerome Boger said the call was for a hit on a defenseless receiver, and Browns coach Rob Chudzinski said he was told it was for a hit to the head.
“It was hard to see,” Chudzinski said when asked if the tape showed a hit to the head.
1. The player I was most interested to watch was nose tackle Sealver Siliga, a surprise starter over Joe Vellano and Isaac Sopoaga. He has a Kyle Love-type build at 6-foot-2 and 325 pounds, and he two-gapped effectively, which showed up multiple times. One play, in particular, came on Fozzy Whittaker's 1-yard run on third-and-8 with 10:01 remaining. Siliga aligned over right guard Shawn Lauvao, and when Lauvao blocked down to account for blitzing linebacker Dane Fltecher, that created a one-on-one matchup between Siliga and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Siliga was initially knocked off balance before recovering with a pretty strong anchor, getting his arms outstretched to lock out Schwartz before locating the ball and shedding to make the tackle. Nice play. Siliga has us intrigued, because we haven’t seen that type of effective two-gapping from a Patriots defensive tackle since Vince Wilfork's season-ending injury.
2. When considering the slow start for the Patriots’ offense, it was more execution than anything -- and by two of their best players. The opening throw to tight end Rob Gronkowski looked like a solid read by Tom Brady against man coverage up the left side, but he just overshot it slightly. And on second down, Gronkowski simply dropped a short pass on the right side as Brady felt the blitz from his backside and got rid of it quickly. The first three plays on the opening three-and-out involved Brady, Gronkowski and Shane Vereen -- arguably their three best skill-position players. Just called for better execution.
3. One Patriots positive from an otherwise poor quarter of offensive football -- running back LeGarrette Blount had 16 of his 17 rushing yards after initial contact. He’s a tough tackle.
4. Maybe a bit harsh, but we’d put the Brady long incomplete pass on a right-to-left crossing route to Julian Edelman (3:51 remaining) more in the category of a “tough drop” than an “overthrow.”
5. On the ensuing play, it looked like Brady’s decisive argument with referee Jerome Boger to pick up an intentional grounding flag, because of Blount being in the area, swayed the decision. From this perspective, it looked like the penalty should have been called, as the ball didn’t get past the line of scrimmage.
6. This was a game where each offensive lineman had one or two plays that were noticeable struggles. For example, on Brady’s interception (3:41 remaining), right tackle Will Svitek hauled down Paul Kruger and could have been called for holding as he got knocked out of his stance. It looked like Svitek let Kruger get his hands on him before his initial punch, and that led to the breakdown. Overall, we like the Browns’ defensive front -- big and physical, sort of like the old Patriots' teams with Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork and Co.
7. On the 12-men-on-the-field penalty, it is unclear where the breakdown occurred, but the Browns had their three-receiver package on the field and the Patriots had been countering that with a nickel grouping. Linebacker Brandon Spikes was the extra playe,r and either he was sent into the game as part of a coaching breakdown or he came on to the field mistakenly.
8. One of the wrinkles in the 3-4 base defense at times had Chandler Jones playing more as a down lineman than at outside linebacker, with rookie Jamie Collins instead playing the outside linebacker role. The Patriots give up some size in that exchange, as Jones has more length but less bulk than a more traditional defensive end, but they held up well against the run regardless. In theory, Collins would give the Patriots some coverage help, although he seemed to have some challenges with tight end Jordan Cameron (16-yard catch, 7:12 remaining when the Patriots rushed just three).
9. Rookie defensive end Michael Buchanan felt like he could have played the opening kickoff better against the Houston Texans (50-yard return by Keshawn Martin), specifically doing a better job playing off Matthew Slater when attacking the wedge, so it caught the eye that Buchanan made the initial hit on the game’s first kickoff against the Browns. That’s the improvement any young player wants to achieve.
10. Seemed like a quick whistle on the short pass to Browns receiver Greg Little as linebacker Dont'a Hightower ripped Little to the ground and the ball came free (10:47 remaining). Bill Belichick was upset after the play, and that’s probably why -- it easily could have been a fumble. Overall, it seemed Hightower was playing faster in this game.
Join my weekly chat every Monday to have your question considered for the weekly Bruschi on Tap Q&A.
Q. Now what? With Rob Gronkowski out, does Josh McDaniels scrap the playbook and dust off ones from pre-2010, when the Pats didn't have such talents at tight end? I can't recall what formations the Pats used during the first six games of the season, but I imagine they were still TE-centric knowing Gronk would return. Now it's clear he's not, so does the offense evolve? If you were the offensive coordinator, what would you do? -- Tron (Waltham, Mass.)
A. The thing about not having Rob Gronkowski earlier in the season is that you also didn't have Shane Vereen (broken wrist in the season opener). I think this offense becomes "little-man" heavy now. The little men are going to have to pick up the slack -- Vereen, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola. Even when they were developing the younger receivers on the outside, that's not really who they want to be. From here on out, it's all going to be about the little guys stepping up.
Q. It seems like we are back to the offense needing to carry the day in order to win based on the defensive struggles. These slow starts really put the offense in a hole. It seems like McDaniels could be doing a better job to get the offense going. Why not get back to the "dink-and-dunk" approach that has worked so well in the past? It seems like Tom Brady is best when he strings together the short pass plays to start drives. -- Blake (Boston)
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.
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.”