Pats banged up as Brady chases wins record against Rams

FILE - In this Nov. 13, 2016, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski looks on before an NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. Gronkowski is having surgery for a herniated disk in his back, a person with knowledge of the details tells The Associated Press. The person spoke Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016, on condition of anonymity because the surgery has not yet been announced by the team. The surgery was first reported by the Buffalo News. (AP Photos/Winslow Townson, File)

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) If Tom Brady becomes the NFL's all-time winningest quarterback on Sunday, he will do it without the guy who's been on the receiving end of most of his touchdown passes.

The Patriots (9-2) will be without tight end Rob Gronkowski this week when they host the struggling Los Angeles Rams (4-7) in their final regular-season matchup with an NFC opponent.

Gronkowski was slated to undergo surgery for a herniated disk in his back this week, a person with knowledge of the details told The Associated Press. He will likely to be out for eight weeks or more, putting his return for this season in jeopardy.

The Super Bowl is Feb. 5 in Houston, should the Patriots get that far.

With 200 victories, Brady is tied with Peyton Manning for the most wins by a quarterback.

But Brady started off the week by missing a day of practice with a knee issue. Tight end Martellus Bennett also missed a practice with both ankle and shoulder issues.

It's created some vulnerability for New England, which entered the week as a two-touchdown favorite over a Los Angeles team that is coming off a 49-21 loss at New Orleans .

But Patriots receiver Chris Hogan, limited in practice this week with a sore back, said the injuries wouldn't affect their approach.

''We're gonna go out there every single week - next-man mentality,'' Hogan said. ''There's a lot of weapons on this team and we play well together, so whoever's out there we're gonna go out and play our best. Whoever it is.''

Though Brady has discovered new options in both Bennett and Hogan this season, he's thrown 67 of his 446 touchdown passes to Gronk - more than he's thrown any other player.

It is behind only Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates (82) for the most connections between a quarterback and tight end in NFL history.

Despite their many issues the Rams enter Sunday ranked ninth in the NFL in total defense, giving up just 339.8 yards per game.

Their passing defense is even better. It's ranked seventh in the league, allowing only 227.5 yards through the air.

In addition, punter Johnny Hekker has limited teams to a 4.5 yards average per return, while ranking second in the league with a 44.9 net yards per punt average.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher acknowledged earlier this week that Gronk was an impact player for the Patriots, adding ''we'll see'' when it comes to his health. But he said he expected Brady to be Brady.

''I can assure you that Tom is going to show up, he always does week after week after week,'' Fisher said.

''At his age and with his experience, he doesn't need a lot of practice reps,'' he said. ''We're not going to be misled by the lack of practice as far as the quarterback is concerned.''

Here are some other things to watch for on Sunday:

HUMBLED DEFENSE: The Rams' defense had been in the midst of another strong season until the past 64:02.

They've given up 63 points in that stretch, including two late touchdowns by the Miami Dolphins and that 49-point thrashing from New Orleans.

Facing Brady and coach Bill Belichick isn't a great place to start over, but the veteran-laden unit is confident it can get its groove back.

''We definitely were mad about it, and disappointed,'' defensive lineman Aaron Donald said. ''But we know what we've got to do. We've got to eliminate the mistakes, and we've got to play better. That's not the way we play. We know that.''

LIFE ON THE ROAD: The Rams are making the final cross-country road trip and 10 a.m. Pacific start in their tumultuous season, which began with relocation from St. Louis to LA.

After spending their entire offseason moving among several locations for offseason activities, the Rams are traveling an NFL-high 32,072 miles this season, including a trip to London.

Fisher mentions the Rams' year of upheaval when asked about his own job security, but doesn't use it as an excuse for their slump.

''I don't look over my shoulder,'' Fisher said. ''I'm not concerned about my job. I have a great relationship with (owner) Stan (Kroenke). He understands the difficulties that were placed on this organization, as far as the move is concerned, and I'm moving forward optimistically with this team.''

GREETINGS: DE Chris Long spent his first eight NFL seasons with the Rams before they released him in February, depriving the franchise of a loquacious personality who likely would have been a hit in Hollywood.

Long has settled in splendidly with the Patriots, and his former teammates are eager to see him.

''Of all the places where one would think that he'd have a chance to be successful, it would be New England,'' Fisher said.

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AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

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For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL .

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