The New England Patriots are rolling into the AFC championship game for the seventh time in the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era, but despite his fantastic play, it isn’t Brady that people are asking questions about this week.
Rob Gronkowski reinjured his ailing left arm on Sunday, ending his season and taking a level of depth from the New England offense. But how much will Gronk’s absence be felt?
After watching New England toy with Houston on Sunday, it’s not hard to have confidence in the Gronkless Pats. Sure, he’s a great player, but that offense is still good to go, right? I think the answer isn’t as clear as many are making it.
The Patriots have taken care of business in his absence, averaging 32 points over their last five games prior to the Houston outing. New England still has the ultra-quick Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, best-second-tight-end-ever Aaron Hernandez, and what appears to be 27 running backs who are capable of making a difference (seriously though, how does New England have a different lead back every week?). They are all great players, and with one of the best QBs of all-time leading the attack they are very capable of moving the ball with ease.
But to say that the Patriots won’t miss Gronk just isn’t true. He isn’t only the best tight end in the NFL, he is a matchup headache waiting to happen and one of the most difficult players to cover. Linebackers are too slow and defensive backs are too small, and that is what the Patriots are going to miss. New England has a great offense without him – arguably the best in the league. But with him they have a freak of nature that provides further complications for defensive coordinators who already have their hands full.
The Patriots are perfectly capable of winning against anyone without Gronk. As we saw this past weekend, when Brady gets his troops rolling they are hard to slow down. The problem for New England is that they are more than likely not going to win their next one to two games by large margins, and close games are where Gronk can be the most lethal. For all his magic, Brady is shown that he is still a human like anyone else, and that means that it is possible to pressure him. If Brady has a rough going and the Patriots desperately need a drive, missing your biggest matchup threat can’t be overlooked. Gronkowski is a playmaker, and other guys are going to need to step up to validate the claim that the Pats can be just fine without him.