Has clock struck midnight on the Patriots?

Has clock struck midnight on the Patriots?
December 8, 2013, 9:45 pm
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PATRIOTS 27, BROWNS 26

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FOXBORO – If you’re a Patriots fan, what do you do now except pray for death with dignity?

You give up the ghost right? Drop the stubborn expectation that this team has the right and obligation to make sure you are entertained into February, no excuses, dammit?

No Gronk the rest of the way – as sources tell me is likely to be the case – means the injury situation has hit critical mass. They’ve had alls they can stand, they can’t stands no more, right?
 
Wilfork, Mayo, Gronkowski all done. Hernandez never started and not likely to be heard from ever again.
 
They got to 10-3 and may get beyond that because – as Sunday showed – their will and resilience often outpaces their ability and execution. But they won’t be able to beat good teams now, right?
 
We all saw the hot mess the Patriots offense was while Gronkowski came back from his back and wrist surgeries and rejoined the team in Week 7.
 
And we can track Gronkowski’s individual impact without trouble. He made 39 catches for 592 yards in the six-plus games he played since his return.
 
But the ripple effect of his presence – the Gravitational Pull of Gronk – was the antibiotic the Patriots offense needed to stop its infection of ineptitude.
 
Start with red zone impact. Prior to his return, the Patriots scored touchdowns on 9 of their 22 red-zone trips to start the season.
 
2 for 5 vs. Buffalo
 
0 for 3 vs. Jets
 
2 for 5 vs. Tampa
 
2 for 3 vs. Atlanta
 
0 for 1 vs. Cincinnati
 
3 for 5 vs. New Orleans
 
Once Gronkowski returned the Patriots scored touchdowns on 19 of 28 red-zone trips.
 
3 for 3 vs. Texans
 
4 for 6 vs. Denver
 
2 for 5 vs. Carolina
 
5 for 8 vs. Pittsburgh
 
3 for 4 vs. Miami
 
2 for 2 vs. Jets
 
Before he left Sunday, the Patriots didn’t get into the red zone against Cleveland.
 
Everything spiked for the offense – Tom Brady’s completion percentage and quarterback rating. Third-down conversions. Rushing yards. Yards made in the middle of the field  
 
The return of Shane Vereen has helped as well but – to be frank – Gronk makes Vereen. Attention paid to him opens up space elsewhere and his ability to overpower his matchup when it’s one-on-one is among the best in the league.
 
Meanwhile, the injuries mount for the 24-year-old. His rookie season in 2010 remains the only one since high school in which he was able to play in every game. Aside from 2010, the last time he made it through a season without missing multiple games due to injury was 2006. In that span was 2009 when he missed his entire junior year at Arizona after back surgery.
 
Now he’s going to need surgery, most likely, which will be his sixth in 13 months.

And the injuries he’s sustaining are, in some cases, a direct by-product of his body type and/or his playing style. The 2011 injury when he was hauled down by Bernard Pollard in the AFC Championship game came because he was dragging Pollard. Landing with huge force on his already broken arm last January broke his arm a second time. The reason T.J. Ward went low on Gronkowski had as much to do with his size as it did the NFL edict directing players to stay away from necks and heads. A defensive back can’t take Gronk at waist level or above and expect to bring him down more than half the time.
 
He is a rhino being chased by wild dogs every time he’s loose in the secondary and that isn’t going to change unless he does. And when he does, his effectiveness will be limited.

So many of the Patriots 10 wins have been like the game Mousetrap. A whole bunch of things have to line up and be executed perfectly in succession with no margin for error in order for the desired outcome to be realized.

Was Sunday’s great escape the famous, final scene for this team that is a couple of plays from 12-1, a few plays from 7-5?

Without Gronkowski, how can you bet on them keeping it up?
 
But then, after 13 games and all the loss-defying wins they’ve pulled off in that span, can you bet against them, especially with the strongest-willed quarterback we’ll probably ever see giving them a puncher’s chance every week?

“We’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve got to just keep bouncing back,” Brady implored. “No one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots.”

Can anyone expect them to be playing in February? Will anyone be surprised if they are?