The Apocalypse isn’t scheduled to arrive until December 21st, but you’d think the schedule was moved up a month listening to the pessimists around New England this morning.
Rob Gronkowski’s broken right forearm has Patriots’ Nation headed for their basements with 6 weeks worth of food and water, hoping to emerge in January and see that their team had made it to the playoffs.
Doomsday, it appears, has arrived in Boston a little ahead of schedule.
In wake of the injury to the all-world tight end, it’s easy to forget that the Patriots have won 4 straight games and lead the AFC East by a whopping 3 games. It’s also easy to forget that this team has been without it’s most versatile and dangerous weapon – Aaron Hernandez – for nearly the entire season.
But as it is with the Chicken Little crowd, they will be quick to point out that the Patriots’ offense collapsed when Hernandez went down in week 2, and didn’t fully recover until after they had lost 3 games – 20-18 to Arizona, 31-30 to Baltimore and 24-23 to the Seahawks – and were seemingly floundering at .500 through six games…and that the same thing is going to happen now that Gronk has hit the skids.
So it’s to be understood why New England sports fans are suffering from acute anxiety this morning, why the scaremongers are out in force, toting their billboards predicting doom for the hometown team. But what these people don’t understand is that the Patriots have the rest of the league right where they want them….
…because they’re wounded and backed into a corner with a nightmare schedule down the stretch, led by a coaching staff that lives for the opportunity to use adversity as motivation with a group of players that have skills so finely honed to the function of the offense that moving forward at 8 yards per touch is their lifeblood, not just a goal.
Oh, and uh, Aaron Hernandez is reportedly fully healed and ready to return for Thursday night’s grudge match with the hated New York Jets.
So no need to gather your survival kit and head for the hills. Just as sure as you will get up on December 22nd to go to your boring job, the Patriots will get up on Thursday morning to go to their boring job – because they are now boring.
Rob Gronkowski is the source for this offense’s personality, it’s charisma. Without him, they are mundane, boring, robotic. What Rob Gronkowski did better than anything else is to mask this team’s methodical, machine like precision, it’s ruthless tank-like physicality with his goofy boyish charm. Now that he is out for at least the next few weeks, that will be exposed.
But just because you see the tank coming at you doesn’t mean it hurts any less – or that you can stop it. You still get squashed by a tank.
And that tank is the best team in the National Football League.
Not because of yesterday’s brutal beatdown of an upstart Indianapolis Colts team, nor because they have the best point differential and turnover differential in the league, nor because Peter King says they are.
They are the best team because Aaron Hernandez is back from injury and Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are ready to show the rest of the NFL what the offense was supposed to look like this season. What we’ve been witnessing thus far is an abridged version of the offense – Plan B, as it were – with the boring and robotic offense trudging along, scoring 42 points a game during their winning streak, with nearly as many first downs.
And some interesting things happened along the way. We discovered that Brandon Lloyd has the body control of a contortionist and the hands of Fred Bilitnikof, sans stickum. We found out that Wes Welker is worth every penny of his franchise tag, that Julian Edelman is nearly as good and that the running game can take over games in spurts.
This is not to say that the Patriots won’t miss Gronkowski. He is uncoverable at times and can take over games if allowed too much space to roam, and an even more compelling contribution may well have been his run blocking – but those things can be replaced, albeit spread out among two or three players.
The fact of the matter is that the Patriots are set up to survive the loss of Gronkowski – a lesson they learned in last season’s Super Bowl – much better than they were set up to lose Hernandez.
Belichick will deny it until the cows come home, but he and McDaniels built a playbook to take advantage of Hernandez’ diverse skill set and freakish athleticism, and when they lost him it sent their plan sideways, and it wasn’t until the 4th quarter and overtime of the win over the Jets four weeks ago that the offense showed signs of compensating for his loss.
Ever since, it’s been back to the philosophy that Brady’s favorite receiver is the guy that’s open, not the guy that has a sprained ankle and can’t play.
But that guy is now back, and coupled with what we know about the rest of this offense, it’s apt to be even more explosive than it was before. And then when Gronk returns in December just in time for a visit from the AFC leading Houston Texans, this offense will be the juggernaut it was intended to be before Hernandez went down.
Throw in a defense that is significantly better than it was during the rough stretch to open the season and one that leads the league in forcing turnovers at nearly three per game – including 13 forced fumbles that are more even than the vaunted Chicago Bears defense has accumulated – and you have a recipe for a late January run all the way to New Orleans in February.
So, the sky is not falling, Chicken Little – But watch out for the tank…