New England Patriots: Rob Gronkowski

Patriots check out Jermichael Finley

June, 2, 2014
Jun 2
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.

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.

Gronk focused on rehab, not depth chart

June, 1, 2014
Jun 1
MELROSE, Mass. -- With New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s availability for the season opener Sept. 7 at Miami still up in the air, the team’s depth at the position has been a talking point entering OTAs.

Speaking at his Citi Football Clinic at Melrose High School Sunday morning, Gronkowski weighed in with his thoughts.

[+] EnlargeRob Gronkowski
Kyle Brasseur for ESPNRob Gronkowski greets participants in his football clinic at Melrose High.
“We’re just working hard,” Gronkowski said. “Everyone that’s there is improving every week and doing the best they can.”

Behind Gronkowski on the depth chart is Michael Hoomanawanui (136 receiving yards, one touchdown in 10 starts last season), four-year veteran D.J. Williams and undrafted free agents Justin Jones and Asa Watson, the younger brother of former Patriots tight end Ben Watson.

With chatter leading up to this year’s draft that the Patriots could target a tight end in the early rounds, Gronkowski said he didn’t pay any attention to that possibility.

“I just worry about what I’ve got to do and what I’ve got to do right now is rehab and get better,” Gronkowski said. “I just have to focus on my job and what I’ve got to do to get back and help the team.”

Recovering from January surgery to repair a torn right ACL, Gronkowski said that he still doesn’t have a target date set for his return. Sunday marks the date that teams can sign free agents without having them count against the compensatory draft pick formula, a note made more interesting for the Patriots with notable tight end options Dustin Keller and Jermichael Finley still available.

Asked what his reaction would be if the Patriots signed either Keller or Finley, Gronkowski said those decisions are out of his hands.

“I don’t make any personnel decisions, it is what it is,” Gronkowski said. “I’m just focused on what I’ve got to do with my job. Tomorrow starts a new week and I’ve got to hit the rehab again tomorrow really hard to make myself better as a player.”

As for Sunday, Gronkowski enjoyed the chance to take his mind off rehab while hosting his clinic for 500 kids grades 1-8. With all four of his brothers, Gordy Jr., Chris, Dan and Glenn, and his father, Gordy Sr., on hand, Rob took part in activities with the kids, including participating in drills and judging the clinic’s race to determine the fastest camper. He even took some reps throwing post-routes and fades to participants, showing off an arm that he suggested could soon find him moving his way onto a different depth chart.

“[Quarterback Tom] Brady better watch out,” Gronkowski said. “He knows I’ve got an arm too.”

Some leftovers from Patriots OTAs

May, 31, 2014
May 31
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Emptying out the notebook from the Patriots' organized team activities Friday:
  1. Something that stood out to me late in practice was second-year linebacker Steve Beauharnais leading the defensive huddle with authority in 11-on-11 drills. I watched him put his hands on a teammate after barking out the play-call in a take-charge type of manner. Beaurharnais, the seventh-round pick from Rutgers, is a candidate to elevate into a Dane Fletcher-type reserve role in 2014.

  2. The Patriots were light at tight end, with only Michael Hoomanawanui and undrafted rookie Justin Jones on the field. Rob Gronkowski and D.J. Williams were present but not taking part in practice, while undrafted rookie Asa Watson was at the required Rookie Premeire event. Energetic assistant coach Brian Daboll was working the tight ends hard. Jones stands out with his height (6-8, 277) and he seems to have reliable hands. Because he's so big, fluidity with footwork in tight spaces (e.g. sharp cuts in cone drills) looks like it can be a challenge for him.

  3. With the light tight end crew, fullback James Develin broke down with the group and went through pass-catching and blocking drills with them.

  4. There was a quick tempo to the early part of practice, with coaches urging players to get lined up quickly as the offense went through some of its plays. Things eventually slowed down, but it was a good example of how the Patriots want to have the ability to play fast and the coaches created mental stress for the players. Along those lines, there was also plenty of signaling by defensive players, and the use of headsets by the coaching staff.

  5. Linebacker Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral muscle, Oct. 13) was on the field for most of the practice, a sign that his recovery has progressed well, as was expected after he met with reporters earlier this month.

  6. Just as we saw in the AFC-East clinching victory in Baltimore in December, second-year player Josh Kline lined up at left guard. In this case, it was because Logan Mankins wasn't present.

  7. Receivers Danny Amendola, Reggie Dunn and Kenbrell Thompkins, and running back Roy Finch, were a few players taking reps as punt returners. There were several parts of practice devoted to special teams, as is often the case.

  8. While more of the practice was about teaching, receiver Julian Edelman seemed to have a productive session with several catches. At one point, after a missed connection with Tom Brady along the right sideline, he was upset with himself and showed his frustration outwardly. With Edelman and Amendola paired together at times, the Patriots still seemed to be lacking that taller outside presence on sideline and downfield throws.

  9. Practice finished with players called over to a hill behind the second practice field, which they had to run multiple times. As Tom Brady noted later Friday night, it's an uphill climb for the team to get where it wants to go.

  10. The next organized team activity open to reporters is Thursday.
Robert Kraft and Rob GronkowskiMike Reiss/ESPNBoston.comRobert Kraft and Rob Gronkowski were among the Patriots at a Play60 event at a Foxborough elementary school Wednesday.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski said Wednesday that there have been no setbacks in his recovery from a torn right ACL, and while he is not yet ready to join teammates on the field in organized team activities that started this week, he is optimistic about his progress.

"It's coming along [well]," Gronkowski said during a Patriots- and NFL-sponsored Play 60 event at Igo Elementary School in Foxborough on Wednesday morning. "Just rehabbing every day, improving every single week, and that's all I can ask for."

Unlike last year, when Gronkowski's offseason was affected by multiple surgeries on his forearm, things have been smoother with his rehab this year. Gronkowski was injured Dec. 8 and had surgery on Jan. 9.

"It's way different stuff. I just have to be patient and work hard and literally give it all I have every single day," he said. "All I can [do is let] the body heal and do what it does, and hopefully when it comes down to it, I am ready to roll."

Gronkowski was present at the Play 60 event along with owner Robert Kraft, seven teammates and Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett.

Gronkowski received a resounding cheer, which was noted by Kraft.

"He is such a well-intentioned guy and he's a lot of fun," said Kraft, who surprised students, teachers and administrators with a $60,000 donation to help build a new playground. "I've never seen Gronk, in all the time with us, ever say or do anything that had a negative overtone. He is always up, and when you are building a team atmosphere with people from different backgrounds and different places and it's a physical game, having someone like Gronk in the system is uplifting, especially if he is on the field all the time."

Along those lines, Kraft was asked how optimistic he is that Gronkowski might be ready for action.

"I do my Play 60 every day and I am down in the training room, and he's been there and he's been very diligent and working very hard," he said. "Now we just hope it translates to the field."

Rob Gronkowski and No. 1 pass-catchers

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
The term is often used when it comes to football personnel -- "We need a No. 1."

Matt Williamson of'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
Jan 22

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.


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

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
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.

Week 17 X's & O's thought: Extra lineman?

December, 28, 2013
When the New England Patriots played the Buffalo Bills back in Week 1, they were without tight end Rob Gronkowski.

It was the first game in 2013 that we had seen the group without Gronk, and questions abounded as to how they will fill his spot in the lineup.

As it turned out, one unforeseen wrinkle appeared in the season opener, as left tackle Nate Solder was often used in a tight end alignment, helping the Patriots to offset the disruptive pass rush of the Bills.

Fast forwarding to Week 17, the challenge the Bills present from a pass rush standpoint has been reinforced 56 times over (in the form of their league-leading 56 sacks), and once again the Patriots will be without Gronkowski.

Solder missed Week 16 with a concussion, but has practiced each day this week and is questionable to play on Sunday. Given that he's participated in each workout, there seems to be at least a chance that he will play.

If he does play, one can wonder whether or not the Patriots will once again utilize Solder in such a fashion so as to slow down the edge rushers in Buffalo -- led by Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes.

The Patriots turned to Marcus Cannon as their fill-in left tackle in Week 1 with Sebastian Vollmer manning the right side, but with Vollmer on injured reserve, they would have to switch things up if they use Solder as a tight end again this Sunday.

The logical option would be to kick Logan Mankins out to left tackle and use Josh Kline at left guard. Kline held his own against the Ravens last week and would be called upon to help neutralize a rugged set of interior linemen for Buffalo.

It's no guarantee that Solder will play tomorrow, but if he does, it'll be interesting to see if the Patriots once again utilize him in a flexible role as they did in Week 1.

Unique sight as players go to movies

December, 20, 2013
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 to see "Lone Survivor."

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 different-from-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.

Double Coverage: Patriots at Ravens

December, 20, 2013
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. 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 a 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.

Weekly Patriots chat recap

December, 12, 2013
Every Thursday on, there is a New England Patriots chat in the late morning/early afternoon. Today's chat kicked off at 11 a.m. ET, can be recapped here, and includes some of the following topics:

1. Projecting players who could receive more opportunities with Rob Gronkowski injured.

2. Rookie receiver Josh Boyce and the potential for him to play more after a solid performance against the Browns.

3. Tight end D.J. Williams signing a two-year contract, through 2014, and projecting needs at the position in the future.

4. Assessing the big picture with the Patriots and if their Super Bowl hopes are realistic.

5. Bill Belichick's coaching job -- his best ever?

6. Can running back Danny Woodhead, now in San Diego, help the Patriots tonight with a big effort against the Broncos?

Groupings: Changes after Gronk injury

December, 12, 2013
One of the things that will be charted on a weekly basis is the positional groupings used by the New England Patriots' offense, as they reveal player value and take us deeper into the X's and O's of how coordinator Josh McDaniels is attempting to attack the opposition.

The main theme this week is what changed after Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was carted off with a torn ACL and torn MCL in the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Browns.

Because the Patriots had only two tight ends dressed, it knocked them out of two groupings -- 2 WR/2 TE/1 RB (10 snaps) and 1 WR/2 TE/1 FB/1 RB (3 snaps). It also led them to a new grouping that wasn't used prior to Gronkowski's injury -- 4 WR/1 RB (16 snaps).

That foreshadows what Patriots fans might expect going forward -- a heavier emphasis on receivers, similar to the first six weeks of the season when Gronkowski didn't play.

Also, as the Patriots tap the different talents of their skill-position players, it makes sense to think we might start to see some packages with two running backs (e.g., Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley) on the field at the same time.

For the season, here is a simplified breakdown of the team's 977 offensive snaps (including penalties, not kneel-downs):

3 or more WRs: 579 of 977
2 or more TEs: 238 of 977
2 backs (mostly RB/FB combo): 226 of 977

There is a 66-play overlap, which accounts for snaps in which there was a combination of 3 WRs/2 backs and 2-3 TEs/2 backs.

Patriots cap and IR ramifications

December, 10, 2013
A case can be made that the New England Patriots have had to deal with more critical season-ending injury issues than any other team in the NFL, as frontline players such as tight end Rob Gronkowski, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo, offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly headline those on injured reserve.

The loss of the players on the injured reserve is also felt from a salary cap perspective, as the Patriots have a total of $27.4 million of salary on injured reserve, second most in the NFL behind only the Rams at $28.8 million.

With an assist from Brian McIntyre, a cap expert and owner of, below is a list at the top five teams hit hardest from a cap perspective by injured reserve players.

Rams -- $28.8 million
Patriots -- $27.4 million
Texans -- $26.1 million
Bengals -- $21.4 million
Giants - $19.7 million

The next five in line are the Broncos, Bears, Jets, Saints and Colts.

McIntyre also passes along that $27.4 million represents 21.1 percent of the Patriots' adjusted cap number, second to only the Rams at 23.4 percent.

These figures further reinforce: injuries have hit the Patriots hard, both as it relates to on-field impact and salary cap management off of it.

Power Rankings: No. 4 New England

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

Preseason: 6 | Last Week: 4 | 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).

McDaniels: Can't replace Gronkowski

December, 10, 2013
The Patriots have turned the page after their Week 14 win over the Cleveland Browns, with a focus now on the Miami Dolphins, their Week 15 foe.

Offensively, the challenge this week is not only sizing up the Dolphins' defense, but game planning without tight end Rob Gronkowski, placed on injured reserved Monday afternoon.

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels dissected the process of trying to account for Gronkowski's absence.

"I don't think you can replace a player like that, a guy that can do so many unique things, with anybody," he said. "I think the thing that we rely on the most from one week to the next has always been trying to figure out what part of our offensive system do you use to maximize the strengths of the players that we have available for us that week against the strengths of the opponent we're playing that week as well.

"And so I think for us the formula's not going to change, the variables that can we use, however, will and I think that happens a lot during the course of the season," he continued.

For the Patriots, that could mean more of a reliance on tight ends Matthew Mulligan, recently re-signed D.J. Williams and perhaps Michael Hoomanawanui, who is working his way back from a knee injury.

Playing without Gronkowski is not necessarily a new challenge for the Patriots -- he missed 11 games dating back to last season before making his 2013 debut -- though McDaniels doesn't know whether playing without Gronkowski previously makes them better equipped to do so again now.

"I think we've experienced playing without him before and I think that -- I don't know if we're better equipped," he said. "I'm not exactly sure how to rate that, I just know that any time you lose a player like that where you can't use a player like that, you need to put your time in to a few different things and other people have to play different roles and you just play offense a little differently."

With a trip to Miami on the horizon, McDaniels and the rest of the offensive staff are focused on ways to maximize the healthy personnel on the roster for this Sunday and going forward.

"I think we kind of have an idea exactly what we need to use, how to kind of formulate our game plan to max out our strengths and try to make up for the loss of a unique player," he said.