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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Six weeks into the 2013 NFL season, the Patriots stood at 5-1, atop the AFC East.
The record was good.
The offense wasn't quite as good, as it was just 22nd in scoring, down from first the season before.
But… There was a but.
Rob Gronkowski, the team's game-changing tight end, was due to return. It was a matter of when, not if.
Seven games later, the Patriots are now sixth in the NFL in scoring. Unsurprisingly, Rob Gronkowski was active and dressed for all seven of those games, catching 39 passes and impacting the offense in ways that were easy to see.
But now the Patriots are without Gronkowski once again, and the timetable for his return is 2014.
|Tom Brady knows his job suddenly became much harder when Rob Gronkowski went down on Sunday.|
For three regular-season games and a potential postseason run, the Patriots will play with what they have -- a group that no longer includes their best pass-catching option.
Quarterback Tom Brady understands that reality, but says now isn't the time for sweeping changes to the team's approach.
"I would say our offense is pretty much our offense, so the other guys that are going to be in there filling that role and playing tight end for us have to do a great job," he said on Wednesday. "We always try to find ways to use a guy's skill set, and we run it decent at times, we throw it decent at times... We still have confidence that we can go out and win games."
Picking up the pieces without Gronkowski involves finding ways to replace the 24-year-old tight end, starting with veterans Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams, a trio Brady is confident can support this offense in what will likely be a collectively expanded role.
"They can definitely, no question," he said. "They've been able to contribute [in] the role that they've been in that we've asked them to do, so I think now the role's going to be more. You're going to play more, because Gronk's not in there, so someone's got to be in there."
But replacing Gronkowski extends beyond who takes his reps at tight end, because as Brady and other members of the Patriots organization would acknowledge, you can't simply plug one player in for him and expect the positional production to sustain.
"That will fall on the backs, that will fall on the tight ends, that will fall on the receivers, anyone who's got an opportunity to produce while they're out on the field," Brady added of replacing Gronkowski.
During the six weeks that the Patriots played without Gronkowski previously, running back Shane Vereen missed five and wide receiver Danny Amendola missed three of them.
Vereen has proven to be among the most important players on the Patriots offense, averaging eight catches per game, second most in the NFL. His soft hands and open-field running make him the ideal fit to line up on Brady's hip when the Patriots turn to their up-tempo, often shotgun approach.
Amendola, meanwhile, has had sufficient production this season, but not necessarily in line with what many expected after a standout preseason that drew comparisons to the receiver he's helped to replace, Wes Welker.
As the stakes raise and the postseason draws nearer, both Amendola and Vereen will be pivotal in the attempt to ensure that this version of the offense without Gronk surpasses the one witnessed earlier this season.
It's just another time the Patriots have to plug a roster hole created by a season-ending injury to a frontline player.
They've been able to endure the losses of nose tackle Vince Wilfork, linebacker Jerod Mayo and others, standing in the thick of the AFC race once again with a 10-3 record and a resilience unmatched by most other NFL teams.
Having to deal with perhaps their biggest loss yet, Brady and his team are adopting the same approach they have all season.
"Teams deal with it, and you deal with it one of two ways: You can let it affect you and your performance and your preparation, or you can deal with it and try to go out there and win a game," he said. "Your margin of error might -- you may not be able to do all the things you may want to do or hope to do, but hopefully it's still good enough to win."