Texans cage Bengals, will get another chance at Pats

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Texans cage Bengals, will get another chance at Pats

When the Houston Texans visited Foxboro less than a month ago, they tapped out after 45 minutes.

Next Sunday, they'll be back. And the question they'll answer is whether that loss built their resolve or broke it.

The Texans got past Cincinnati Saturday in a Wild Card matchup 24-10. It wasn't a work of art but the Texans haven't really had any of those since November began and their declining performance started in earnest.

Houston worked its way down from the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC down to the third seed by losing three of their final four games.

In taking out the sixth-seeded Bengals, Houston relied on its defense and the soon-to-be NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.

The Texans didn't allow an offensive touchdown while forcing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton into a 14-for-30 passing evening.

Houston didn't do too much offensively either, managing four field goals and an Arian Foster touchdown.

The Texans were dominated by New England in the first meeting in a game where the stage just seemed too big for quarterback Matt Schaub.

Houston can - if it chooses - lament two things from its first meeting.

They ran into an offensive buzzsaw in New England that took advantage of some Houston injuries. And misfires by Schaub undid their offense rather than New England completely dominating them.

Schaub had the Texans at the Patriots 21 on Houston's second drive before he got picked. The Texans also failed to convert on fourth downs from the Patriots 33 and 38 in the second quarter.

If, if, if. ...

The Patriots, meanwhile, can note that they were without Rob Gronkowski and still scored touchdowns on their first three possessions while rendering Watt a non-factor.

There's plenty of time to mull what's changed and what will be different. But the Texans will know that this trip to New England - and the fact they are traveling at all - dates back to the Monday Night Drubbing they took on December 10.

Slater missing from start of Patriots practice

Slater missing from start of Patriots practice

FOXBORO -- The Patriots were without two key members of their special teams units at Friday's practice. 

Both Matthew Slater (foot) and Jordan Richards (knee) were not spotted at the start of the team's most recent workout. Defensive lineman Woodrow Hamilton (illness) was also missing. 

Hamilton and Richards did not participate in Thursday's practice. Slater was present on Wednesday and Thursday after missing Sunday's game against the Jets. 

The Patriots did have a Gronkowski back on the field Friday, but it wasn't Rob, who was expected to undergo back surgery in Los Angeles. It was fullback Glenn Gronkowski, who has apparently been re-signed to the Patriots practice squad for his fourth go-round on New England's 10-man unit. Practice-squad tight end Kennard Backman, who has not been at Patriots practice since Wednesday, has likely been released in order to make room for Gronkowski. 

 

Curran: Patriots holding all the cards with Gronkowski contract

Curran: Patriots holding all the cards with Gronkowski contract

FOXBORO – If the Patriots ever do file for divorce from Rob Gronkowski, it’s not going to be because they don’t like what they are paying him.

When the team picked up the $10 million option on Gronk’s contract in March, activating the back half of his six-year, $54M contract, the Patriots got the upper hand business-wise.

Gronk is signed through the 2019 season – same as Tom Brady. His salaries from 2017 to 2019 are $4.25M, $8M and $9M. His cap hits are $7M, $11M and $12M.

The salary cap for 2016 is $153M. Between now and 2019, it could balloon to more than $170M. 

Gronk fits neatly under it. The franchise tag for tight ends in 2016 was $9M. Gronk is on the books to play for less than half of that in salary in 2017.

That explains why Gronk sent that tweet back in March,  passive aggressively kicking rocks about the “pay cut” he took when the Patriots picked up his option. And it’s why, throughout the summer, his agent Drew Rosenhaus was trying to get the Patriots to the table to work out a new deal for his client.

This back injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for Gronkowski business-wise.

Even if the Patriots tore up the final three years of the deal and gave him a new contract without knowing how he’ll come out of this latest back surgery, the new deal would have to be performance-based and loaded with playing-time clauses.

In that case, as opposed to self-preservation to ensure he can walk fairly well at 50, Gronk, now 27, may feel compelled to play even when he’s not “right.” And, if he’s playing while less than 100 percent, will he be able to play with the abandon that made him the transcendent player he’s been?

That’s if Gronkowski and his Gronktourage would even agree to that kind of a contract, which I’m not sure they would.

They will want security. They may also feel they are owed security because of the physical sacrifices Gronk has made in his seven-year career. And that’s not even taking into consideration the windfall the franchise has realized both financially and in public perception because an inimitable player has been on their roster for seven years. The team should expect a request that they relax their generally hard-line bargaining

While the Patriots have had a strong relationship with Gronk’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, this contract is – on face value – embarrassing for Rosenhaus at this point.

That Gronk “won” for the first portion of the contract isn’t going to be recalled. But he did win. Gronk signed the deal on June 8, 2012. Within months, he fractured his arm on a PAT attempt against the Colts. Then – after having a plate inserted – he broke it again in the playoffs right where the plate ended. An infection ensued. Gronk also had back surgery that offseason. He very slowly returned to action in 2013, missing the first six games. He returned for Week 7, caught 39 balls for 592 yards over the next seven games, then had his season ended by an ACL blowout.

At that juncture, the security of the contract was a godsend. But the way those two years went – the rushing back to the field, the plate insertion, the infection – has shaped the entire relationship with the team since.  

And considering Gronk’s father, Gordie, was a successful businessman himself and sent four sons to the NFL, there may be no more well-informed family out there as to the harsh realities of the business of football.

Beyond just knowing how the sausage gets made, though, the Gronkowskis have been considering Rob’s football mortality and making sure to maximize his earnings since he was 19.

Not hypothetically either. After Gronk’s sophomore season, he declared for the draft despite having ruptured a disk for the first time. The reason? If he played another down of college football his $4M insurance policy was void. If he suffered a career-ending injury, he would realize no dough from the sport. So he entered the draft to start making as much as he could before the body gave out. 

Which is to their credit. The kid had a skill, he loved playing the sport, making sure he’s well-compensated for plying that skill for as long as possible is what any parent should do.

But we’re approaching a crossroads now. Will Gronk want to continue playing? Will his family encourage him to? Will he even be cleared?

And even if those answers all came back in the affirmative, would the Gronkowskis sign off on Rob playing for relative peanuts compared to what lesser tight ends are receiving?

The Patriots have the favorable hand right now. The young man may well be on an operating table still, so this would not be the time to play it.

But the hard realities of that contract are impossible to ignore. And at some point, they’ll come to a head.