As Rob Gronkowski was being carted off of the field with what at the time appeared to be a serious knee injury in Denver last night, most of the Patriots fans you know were probably saying the same thing. As much as that fanbase wanted an undefeated season after the heartbreak of 2007 and the Deflategate drama of the spring and summer, in that moment, they would have happily traded a regular-season loss to the Broncos for a healthy Gronk in the playoffs. Hours later, after losing to Denver in overtime and getting the postgame news that Gronkowski appears to have avoided a serious injury and should return this season, they can realize how their strange wish was right.
If there was a team who should care the least about going 16-0, strangely, shouldn't it be the Patriots? An undefeated regular season is an incredible achievement and worth celebrating as one of the great seasons in league history, but does anyone involved with the organization look back on 2007 and prefer it to what happened last year, when the team overcame the adversity of a 2-2 start to win a fourth Super Bowl under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady?
Of course not. If the Patriots win a fifth title this season, nobody will regret that they failed to put together an undefeated season, and if they come up short in the playoffs, nobody would have been satisfied with 16-0.
Even if the story had flipped -- the Patriots win but lose Gronkowski for the year -- there's a real question as to whether they actually would have been able to go 16-0 without him on what is quickly becoming a roster decimated by injuries. It's all a reminder that while winning games is part of the equation, what's most important for New England now is getting in the right position for a Super Bowl run. And that would include Gronk.
The Gronk effect
The Patriots' offense is built around creating safe throws for Brady in a number of ways, but the shortest path towards an easy completion is by using a combination of motion, picks, and Brady's ability to diagnose defenses pre-snap to identify and exploit mismatches. Without Julian Edelman and then Danny Amendola, the Patriots lost their top two choices to work out of the slot and find holes in softer zone coverages. Dion Lewis's torn ACL (and the departure of Shane Vereen this offseason) left the Patriots without a running back steadily capable of working out of the backfield or motioning outside to run past badly-exposed linebackers.
And yet, they were able to adapt, at least for parts of last night's game. They didn't have Lewis, but Brady was able to find Brandon Bolden for a 63-yard touchdown on a play where the Patriots used a motioning Gronkowski to overload the seam and occupy Denver's safeties. That gave Bolden enough time to run his wheel route past Danny Trevathan, and Brady dropped a perfect throw in the bucket down the sidelines for the score.
With their wide receiver corps whittled down to Brandon LaFell and replacement-level backups against arguably the best duo of cornerbacks in football, meanwhile, New England's solution was to turn to Gronkowski as a Joker and split him out wide. It's how the Patriots got their first touchdown, when Gronkowski was split out against Darian Stewart and beat him badly after the catch on a stick route. Just before Gronkowski's injury, the Patriots split him out wide again against Stewart, who stayed 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. The Pats turned to the slant-flat route combination they often run and picked up what looked like a critical first down to Gronk with 3:46 to go.
On the next play, Stewart dropped Gronkowski on an incomplete pass, ending his night. Was it a dirty play? Both sides can make their case, although it wasn't anywhere near as dirty as Von Miller's NFL Blitz-esque pile on sack of Brady earlier in the game. Stewart launched himself at Gronkowski's legs in a moment where Gronk wasn't going to be able to protect himself from the blow, in much the same way that Gronkowski wasn't able to shield himself from T.J. Ward when the then-Browns safety ended his 2013 season with a torn ACL.
At the same time, though, Stewart really didn't have much of a choice. Everybody tries to go low on Gronkowski because there's no other way to tackle him. (It's telling that Brady himself said that the rules force players to go low when asked about the injury after the game.) Stewart wasn't at an angle where it would have made sense to continue running before trying to engage Gronkowski further downfield. His dive was in time with where it looked like the ball was going to be if Gronkowski caught it, which would have given Stewart a chance to knock the pass out by putting his helmet on the ball. In trying to adjust for the pass, Gronkowski was also stretched at a weird, uncommon angle -- it would have been impossible for Stewart to adjust in real-time to try and hit Gronkowski in the knee, even if he were so inclined. Dangerous? Absolutely. Dirty? If Brady can't make the case, I certainly won't.
Without Gronkowski, an offense which has already been slowed by injuries might very well grind to a halt. The Patriots scored 28 points or more in each of their first seven games, averaging 35.6 points per contest over that run. Since they lost Lewis during their victory over Washington in Week 9, the offense has retreated. They've averaged 24.5 points over their last four games, failing to hit 28 points even once over that time.
Losing Gronk would take away their last -- and most valuable -- mismatch. Josh McDaniels can line up Scott Chandler in Gronk's role and have him run the same routes, but the threat of Chandler isn't going to scare teams into keeping their safeties 10 yards off the line of scrimmage very frequently. They won't be fretting long enough for Bolden to come free on his wheel route, as he did last night, and Bolden won't be able to beat guys at the line of scrimmage like Lewis can. Brady was able to piece together a 51-yard drive with Chandler and Brandon LaFell to set up the game-tying field goal after Gronk went out last night, but things simply can't be the same without Gronkowski.
And teams haven't been afraid of the New England running game over this stretch; while LeGarrette Blount grounded up Washington in Week 9, the three games since have seen the Pats run the ball 61 times for just 201 yards, an average of just 3.3 yards per carry. It's telling that New England was throwing the ball last night during their four-minute drill against the league's best pass defense. That speaks to the lack of faith Belichick and Josh McDaniels had in their running game by the end of a contest where the Pats finished with just 39 rushing yards.
As much as a serious Gronkowski injury would hurt the Patriots in the weeks to come, though, I don't know that his absence cost New England the game last night, especially given that Gronk was available for the first 57 minutes or so of the contest.
The other key injury
The more meaningful injury for the Patriots -- at least last night -- was the knee injury which took linebacker Dont'a Hightower out of the game during the second quarter. Hightower, who has been having a Pro Bowl-caliber season for the Patriots, was already assuming a bigger role in the defense with Jamie Collins sidelined by a mysterious illness, one which Patriots ownership took great liberties to point out was unrelated to the cleanliness of New England's practice facilities, quashing any rumors that Collins might have contracted a staph infection.
It's always tenuous to link one defensive player's absence to a dramatic shift in team performance, but the New England run defense collapsed once Hightower came out of the lineup. As masslive.com's Kevin Duffy noted, the Broncos ran the ball 15 times for a total of just 43 yards with Hightower in the lineup. After Hightower left, Denver ran the ball 17 times for a whopping 136 yards, averaging an even eight yards per carry. Three of Denver's four touchdowns came on the ground, including a sweep which produced two long scores from short-yardage on second-and-1 and third-and-1.
Hightower might not have been able to stop those plays singlehandedly, but with Patriots defenders missing tackles on both of those scores, it's tough not to wonder what he could have done had he been on the field. It was Hightower, remember, whose diving tackle of Marshawn Lynch required the Seahawks to run another play and set up the Malcolm Butler interception during the Super Bowl.
The good news, if you're a Patriots fan, is that the Super Bowl is still their most likely destination come February. Gronkowski still has to take an MRI, but early reports suggest that he avoided a serious knee injury and should be back in the near future. Hightower reportedly suffered a sprained MCL, which should keep him out for a couple of weeks, but he should be back in plenty of time for the playoffs, hopefully with Collins in tow. Edelman and Amendola should also be back on the field come January. The cavalry is coming.
ESPN's Football Power Index agrees. Their lead in the AFC might be down to one game, with the Broncos holding the tiebreaker after Sunday night, but the Patriots are still the best bet to make it to the Super Bowl. FPI gives them a whopping 53.4 percent of making it to the Super Bowl, leaving the Pats as the only team in football who are favorites to make it to Santa Clara in February. The 11-0 Panthers still seem like their most likely opponents, but because they're stuck in a tougher conference and have been aided by the league's seventh-easiest schedule, Carolina's Super Bowl chances are at 45.2 percent.
Nobody else in the AFC is above 18.1 percent; even after the win, Denver is down to 12.5 percent. It may not be a 16-0 season, but if the Patriots finish 14-2 and enter January with a healthy Gronkowski and a healthy Hightower (not to mention their slot combo), they have a real shot at another title. And the pain of losing an undefeated season will be something they leave here in November.