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Sunday, January 13, 2013
Updated: January 14, 9:50 AM ET
Pats adjust to life without Gronk

By Mike Reiss
ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski left Gillette Stadium with his left arm in a sling, his forearm reinjured and his season over. His teammates felt his pain.

"He looked like he was hurting. It hurts," fellow tight end Michael Hoomanawanui relayed. "A guy with that much talent, it stinks. There is no other way to put it."

Rob Gronkowski
Rob Gronkowski lasted only seven plays on Sunday after missing five games earlier this season.

Gronkowski's injury, which came on the Patriots' seventh offensive play when he landed on his previously broken forearm on an incomplete pass up the right sideline, cast a dark cloud over New England's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans in the divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

The Patriots had entered the game with almost a fully clean bill of health, having removed 15 of 20 players off their injury report on Friday. They were the only club in the divisional round of the playoffs to have all 22 of their starters from the first week of the season still on their active roster.

Now they enter next Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the visiting Baltimore Ravens (6:30 p.m. ET) with injuries in key spots. Change-of-pace running back Danny Woodhead, who played 34 percent of the snaps during the regular season, injured his thumb on the first play of the game and never returned. Also, starting right defensive end Chandler Jones left at the end of the second quarter with an ankle injury and didn't play again.

But no blow was as significant as the one to Gronkowski, who had missed five regular-season games before returning in a limited role (25 snaps) in the regular-season finale.

"It's hard to replace a player like him because he's a freak of nature," tight end Aaron Hernandez said.

The plan Sunday against the Texans was to use Gronkowski heavily, according to quarterback Tom Brady.

"We had a whole plan built for him and Woody," Brady revealed. "We run the first series of the game and all those plans change. I think a little of it was 'What are we going to do now? How are we going to adjust?'"

Personnel-wise, the key adjustment was inserting Hoomanawanui into the game for Gronkowski, and surprising Shane Vereen -- who had a career day with three touchdowns -- at running back for Woodhead. It wasn't like the Patriots suddenly altered their personnel groupings; of the 59 snaps they ran after Gronkowski's injury, 50 of them came with Hoomanawanui on the field in place of Gronkowski.

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"Hooman and Shane stepped in there and both did a good job for us," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who earlier in the week had compared preparing for a playoff game to what Navy SEALs experience when they prepare for a mission and then have to adjust when they realize what they prepared for isn't the reality.

"Shane obviously made a lot of big plays, but Hooman did a great job too, as he's been doing for the last month. These kind of games, you never really know when the dial spins, where it's going to wind up, who it's going to end up on. Those guys were prepared."

The Patriots should be prepared for life without Gronkowski because they just lived it, and as receiver Wes Welker said, "We've showed that guys can step up and play that role, and everybody kind of upped their game."

Gronkowski initially broke his left forearm while blocking on an extra point attempt late in the team's Nov. 18 victory over the Indianapolis Colts and missed the next five games. The Patriots were 4-1 in those games, losing only to the San Francisco 49ers, one of the four teams remaining in the NFL playoffs.

Looking back on how the Patriots adjusted without Gronkowski, the main thing that stands out is that they remained committed to a base offense that kept two tight ends on the field.

That was something they couldn't do in 2011 when they didn't have as much quality depth behind Gronkowski and Hernandez. So if those two tight ends were limited or out, the offense had to alter its look to more three-receiver groupings.

This year has been different. The Patriots initially turned to six-year veteran Daniel Fells in Gronkowski's absence, as he played 44 snaps in a Dec. 2 win over the Miami Dolphins. But the coaching staff must not have liked what it saw from Fells because the team elevated Hoomanawanui, now in his third NFL season, to the No. 2 tight end spot the next week, and his role in the offense has grown since. Of his 283 snaps on the season, 179 came over the final four games.

Aaron Hernandez
Aaron Hernandez knows his life is more difficult without fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Hoomanawanui, who played under offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels in St. Louis last season, felt like he had made strides at Gronkowski's "Y" position (usually on the line of scrimmage).

"Practice is one thing, but getting [into] live game situations, for me, it's gotten more and more as the season has gone on, and I think I've been able to grow as a player at my position and take my role, whatever that is each and every week, and get better at it," said the 6-foot-4, 263-pound Hoomanawanui, who at one point earlier in the season was only getting on the field as an oversized fullback.

Of course, the idea was that he'd be a placeholder until Gronkowski returned to full-time duty. But those plans have changed.

"Every time his number's been called this year, he's delivered for us, so he's one of those guys we have faith in," offensive guard Logan Mankins said.

The Patriots will likely also reintegrate Fells into the mix, as he was a healthy scratch Sunday. So they have the depth in-house at tight end, and there's also the option of running more plays with Deion Branch on the field as a third receiver.

Meanwhile, there is one other lingering question as it relates to Gronkowski, and it's if he should have been on the field at all. Belichick said it was strictly a medical decision and that Gronkowski, who wore a large white protective wrap on his left forearm up to the elbow, wouldn't have played if he wasn't cleared.

But teammates noted that even as Gronkowski returned to practice, he was favoring his forearm, and that was clear to anyone who watched him in the season finale on Dec. 30 against the Dolphins. After Sunday's victory, owner Robert Kraft was seen speaking with team doctor Thomas Gill in the locker room, and surely he was concerned about Gronkowski, among others. Players were as well, as Gronkowski will require another surgery.

"Everyone on the team loves Rob, loves him as a person [and] player," Mankins said. "It's a tough break for him, and it's always a tough break for our team, but whoever gets put in that spot, they have to do that job. We're all counting on him."

"Obviously, we're disappointed because we're a family. Gronk brings a lot of laughter to the meeting room," linebacker Jerod Mayo added. "Any time we're not at full strength, and we don't have all the guys out there, it's obviously disappointing, but we have other guys waiting for the opportunity to play."

The plan is to return to work Monday, with players correcting mistakes from Sunday's win over the Texans, then setting their sights on the Ravens in a rematch of last year's AFC title game. This season, the Patriots lost to the Ravens in Baltimore, 31-30, on Sept. 23.

They'll do so without Gronkowski, which is a tough blow, but as the Patriots already have proven, it's one they can overcome.