EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 10, 2013

Winning without Gronk isn't impossible

Bill Burt
The Eagle-Tribune

---- — I guess it would be way too easy, maybe even logical, to say the New England Patriots Super Bowl hopes officially died with Rob Gronkowski’s injured knee yesterday afternoon.

It’s obvious that, as goofy and immature as he is, he is one of the best players in the National Football League. And the Patriots scored 12 less points (32 to 20) when he was not in the lineup earlier this year.

Or you could take another — possibly delusional — approach from Sunday’s 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots scored 27 points after Gronkowski was hurt.

Understandably, this won’t be easy. The Patriots relied heavily on Gronkowski, particularly when he was covered by a lone linebacker or safety, and when the Patriots were near the end zone.

But I would argue that, of all Patriots teams that could “survive” without Gronkowski, the 2013 Patriots might be it.

Here are five ways it could happen:

1. See Patriots run.

The Patriots have dedicated themselves, most of the time, to running the football. And we’re not talking about draw plays, when the opposing defenses are defensive-back loaded and expecting the pass. I’m talking about first down. I’m talking 3rd-and-2. I’m talking in between the tackles.

This Patriots’ offense has been built to run the ball more than it has since Gronkowski arrived in 2010, with two “power backs” in Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, to go with the faster, pass-catching guys like Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Also, the fact the Patriots have a regular fullback, James Develin, whose role has picked up in importance the last two weekends.

If the Patriots have success running the ball, Tom Brady will be able to throw the ball to his version of the Smurfs.

2. Turnovers.

The Patriots defense can shoulder some of Gronk’s absence, by getting back to forcing turnovers. That’s not easy with the huge injury list, but Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes and “sleeper” Rob Ninkovich have a penchant for getting the ball back at opportune times. That must, must continue. When the Patriots don’t force turnovers — see Sunday’s game versus Cleveland — winning is twice as hard.

3. Amendola must find end zone.

While his thigh/leg injury is apparently still lingering, this is Danny Amendola’s chance to shine. He has been outperformed by Julian Edelman and that wasn’t supposed to happen. This new hybrid offense, which will virtually be tight-end-free, centers around Amendola getting those “seam” passes down the middle of the field, a staple of Gronkowski. Forget about Wes Welker. It’s time to get touchdowns, like the one he got yesterday (though it did remind us of a Welker-like TD).

4. Tommy being Tommy.

Brady, as has been noted here before, is playing the best football of his career. Sure, he has missed a few guys — Gronkowski and Edelman were possible TD connections early on Sunday — but his pocket presence has improved five-fold here the last six weeks. Brady is moving up in the pocket and throwing the ball downfield, in the clutch, as well as he ever has (16-for-20 in the fourth quarter!). Of course, the offensive line has proven to be clutch in the second half of most of the recent victories.

5. Adam who?

Another key development the last few weeks has been the emergence of Stephen Gostkowski not only as very good kicker — his 85.5 percent success rate ranks 9th all-time — but a kicker who is now playing key roles in winning games. You could argue that it’s been MVP status in the last two victories over Houston (two fourth quarter 53-yarders, one to tie and the other to win) and Cleveland (a 50-yarder in chilly temperatures and his perfect on-sides kick to give the Pats one last chance). Gostkowski has made 30 of 32 kicks, including 5 of 6 from 50 yards or longer, for a career-best 93.8 percent success rate.

5a. Contributions galore.

The best part of what has happened this year is that while Brady has come through several times in the clutch, he hasn’t done it alone. Earlier in the season, while the receiving corps was mincemeat, the Patriots defense was semi-dominant. Now the roles have been reversed somewhat. Everybody, including special teams (remember that long, high punt in OT against Denver), must be there on most nights if the Patriots are going to win. If everybody pitches in, from all three phases, as they’ve done lately, the Patriots can beat anybody, particularly with No. 12.

Some of the best Patriots teams ever — See 2001, 2003 and 2004 — lived off doubt. In fact those teams ate it up. This is not new territory for Coach Bill Belichick and his teams.