After another wild comeback win, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had plenty of game material to sort through on his Monday conference call with media.
New England overturned Cleveland the day before, 27-26, after being down for 59 of 60 minutes. The victory involved an onside kick recovery, a questionable pass interference penalty, and a go-ahead field goal opportunity for the Browns that fell just short.
But the call's focus fell on Rob Gronkowski.
The tight end took an ugly hit when making a reception in the third quarter. He was torpedoed in the right knee by Browns safety T.J. Ward and had to be carted off the field.
Patriots Insider Tom E. Curran confirmed that Gronkowski had an MRI Monday that revealed a torn ACL as well as MCL damage, ending the tight end's season.
"Rob is going to have some more tests today but I would say the situation doesn’t look too good," Belichick said in his opening remarks. "But we’ll wait until we have a final evaluation before we confirm or do anything."
Gronkowski had 419 receiving yards and four touchdowns in the four weeks leading up to the Cleveland game.
The coach admitted replacing such production is a tall order. He paid the player a high compliment by comparing the impact of his absence to this season's losses of linebacker Jerod Mayo and nose tackle Vince Wilfork -- both defensive captains for New England and league standouts at their respective positions.
"I don’t think too many teams have players of that caliber at any position to just put in another Rob Gronkowski or put in another Vince Wilfork or put in another Jerod Mayo," Belichick said. "Whoever is in there is going to have to fulfill some of those duties but it may expand to more people, like we ended up having to do offensively, using more four-receiver sets instead of three receivers and a tight end or something like that. Or it might result in the tight ends getting more plays, or some combination there."
Oddly, the Patriots might benefit from having some unfortunate experience in the task. Gronkowski missed all offseason workouts and the first six weeks of the regular season because of multiple forearm surgeries and a back procedure.
New England has had him for just seven games this season.
"I’d like to think there’s going to be some carryover there, not only the first six weeks of the season but the entire training camp as well," Belichick noted. "That’s the way we practiced and played most of the year, including the preseason games and that’s what, 10 games?
"It was great to have him back and he was obviously a big contributor for us. He’s an outstanding player and I hope that his situation isn’t as serious as what it might be. If it is, then I’m sure it will be some combination of what we’ve already done this year or maybe because we have a few different players and we’re at a different point in the season, there may be a few different things too. One way or the other, we’ll have to adjust to it."
It's true New England has faced an awesome amount of adversity this season -- not just in personnel losses but in seemingly insurmountable game day deficits. And it's true the team has somehow managed to come out on top more often than not.
"[It's a] very tough minded and determined group that, even though at times the deck has been stacked against us or it’s been things that we’ve had to overcome, they haven’t ever made any excuses or tried to back down from the challenge," Belichick pointed out.
"The attitude, the ability to go out there and fight and persevere and deal with whatever the circumstances are and not really get too fazed by it, but just try to deal with it, has been very impressive by the entire team this year, especially with some young guys and newer faces on the team. Overall, they’ve all embraced whatever the opportunity is, even though it may not look too bright."
But one has to wonder if Gronkowski's injury is the tipping point. The only certainty is Monday's call marked the beginning of an interesting conversation.