The loss of Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the season strikes a significant blow to the New England Patriots, but it will not derail their quest to win a seventh AFC Championship in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era.
The show goes on for the Patriots who are 9-2 and host the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday as whopping 13-point favorites. Now let’s delve into why they’re going back to the Super Bowl despite losing their top offensive weapon.
Getty ImagesJared Wickerham
The AFC is fairly weak this season
As evidenced by what you see on television every Sunday, and measured statistically and historically by Football Outsiders, there just aren’t any truly great teams this season. Call it a victory for parity. It’s especially true in the AFC where, after New England, the Oakland Raiders (9-2) and probably the Kansas City Chiefs (8-3) are the strongest AFC contenders but both have significant weaknesses.
Oakland’s defense is very porous and the Chiefs offense, as ever during the Alex Smith era, is efficient but just average. Kansas City has turned rookie speedster Tyreek Hill into a weapon but still don’t have the services of top wideout Jeremy Maclin (groin) and dynamic running back Jamaal Charles who endured another knee injury and will attempt to return late in the season. The Raiders have a slightly more challenging remaining schedule than the Patriots as New England has an inside track to the No. 1 overall seed, a bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
The Patriots offense is still stacked
These aren’t the 2006 Patriots that let Deion Branch walk and tried to find out if Tom Brady could make a croquembouche out of doughnut holes. Brady’s top wideouts that season were Reche Caldwell, a 35-year-old Troy Vincent, Doug Gabriel and Jabar Gaffney.
Even without Gronk, who has averaged a whopping 21.6 yards per reception on 25 catches in limited action this season, New England has a bevy of weapons. Shall we count them? Sure.
First of all, the offensive line play has much improved since last season. Last year's surprising breakout star running back Dion Lewis has been working back to full strength with 67 yards in Week 12 after rehabilitating from a torn ACL last season. Brady’s favorite target, wideout Julian Edelman, who can air it out on a trick play in a pinch, remains sure-handed and elusive.
The pairing of the humongous Gronk and 6-foot-7 fellow tight end Martellus Bennett has probably given some defensive coordinators nightmares, but Bennett alone still gives the Pats a big red zone body. Wideout Chris Hogan can stretch the field on the boundary and LeGarrette Blount, who has found the end zone 12 times already, can pound the rock for third down conversions and help salt the clock late in games. No doubt Gronk is a loss this offense still has a lot of weapons at its disposal.
The defense is good enough, and special teams are solid
The Patriots’ defense is the team’s weakest unit and has struggled to manufacture much of a pass rush. Bend but don’t break seems to be the rule of thumb. If New England finds itself in Divisional Round rematch against the Chiefs (let’s say KC wins in the Wild Card round as a #5 seed), we like the Patriots’ chances to outproduce Kansas City in another 27-20 something game where perhaps they benefit again from some dubious Chiefs late-game clock management.
Of course Stephen Gostkowski, along with nearly every kicker in the league not named Justin Tucker, needs to iron out some hiccups, but more broadly the Patriots rank a 11th overall in special teams DVOA.
USA TODAY SportsRon Chenoy
We purposely didn’t mention Tom Terrific above, because he deserves his own section. He’s not at 100-percent right now as he’s nursing a knee injury but he was effective enough against the Jets in Week 12 and has time to heal up for January football.
The 39-year-old Brady is sipping from the same fountain of youth as 37-year-old Drew Brees, who are both enjoying masterful seasons as they inch toward age 40. Brady has thrown 18 touchdown passes against just one interception since returning from his suspension. He leads the league with a 116.7 quarterback rating and 9.19 adjusted net yards per pass attempt. In other words, he’s as good as ever right now.
As you would expect, Brady and the Patriots historically has been better with Gronkowski on the field. Per Sports Insights, they score 31.2 points with 279.2 passing yards per game with him and 26.9 points per game and 252.4 passing yards per game without him. That’s a significant dropoff, though the offensive composition of this team is different and probably better positioned than previous teams to replace a decent amount of Gronk’s production.
Getty ImagesGetty Images
This is a week where, as Patriots beat writer Ben Volin points out, the mad genius head coach is breaking down Rams rookie QB Jared Goff’s three years of college tape while the Rams are clarifying Jeff Fisher’s confusing comments about Patriots running backs, claiming his reference to “Danny” was to Amendola, not Danny Woodhead, who left New England after the 2012 season.
Belichick is simply the best at crafting game plans on a week-to-week basis and making halftime adjustments. The Patriots may not cover that robust 13-point spread this week when it comes to the playoffs, it’s usually unwise to bet against them. Unless they meet the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. But that’s a potential story for February.