'O,' yes!

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'O,' yes!

By Michael Felger

Whether it encouraged you or not, whether you were more frustrated or entertained, Thursday's 45-24 Thanksgiving Day victory in Detroit is just the way it's going to have to be for the Patriots.

Just about all the pressure is on Tom Brady and the offense. It's not fair, because it's the Patriots defense that deserves the scrutiny. It's that side of the ball that deserves to be criticized and held to the fire.

Unfortunately, I don't know if you can expect much more out of it than what we're currently getting, which is the occasional turnover and not much else. Make no mistake, we'll take those turnovers. They were the difference last week against Indianapolis and they were plays that really turned the tide Thursday in Detroit. Those takeaways are accutally signs of progress.

But let's face facts. The Patriots defense isn't very good right now. The Pats can't stop anybody. They can't get off the field on third down and they simply can't cover the middle. It doesn't matter if it's Peyton Manning or Shaun Hill, you can throw on the Patriots. And there are times you can run on them, too.

The Lions did both to the Pats on Thursday. They had their way with New England, just as the Colts did for long stretches last Sunday. Just as you should expect any halfway decent offense in any halfway decent conditions to do from this point forward.

That's why it's all on Brady. That's why it's all on Deion Branch and Wes Welker and the rookie tight ends. That's why it's all on BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead and the offensive line.

It was the failure of those offensive players that nearly led to another devestating Colts comeback against the Pats last week.

And it was the success of those offensive players that delivered Thursday's wild victory.

It wasn't just about the numbers, although there were certainly some impressive ones. Brady had four touchdowns and a perfect quarterback rating (158.3). Branch and Welker each had a pair of touchdowns. Green-Ellis averaged nearly five yards a carry and also scored twice.

No, it wasn't just about those fantasy stats. It was about how the offense delivered situationally.

They got the ball on a late possession in the second quarter, trailing 14-3, and they scored a touchdown.

They got the ball early in the third quarter after Devin McCourty's first interception, trailing by seven, and they scored a touchdown.

They got the ball late in the third, again trailing by seven, and they scored a touchdown.

Then they scored touchdowns the last four times they got the ball (not including the kneeldown).

Forty-five points on the board. You kids on defense can check back in with us later.

Can the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl this way? I think the answer is obvious:

Sure. Why not? The Pats have now beaten Baltimore, San Diego on the road, Pittsburgh on the road and Indianapolis. Who in the AFC are they going to face tougher than those teams? Maybe the Jets are that squad. I guess we'll find out next Monday night.

The point is that this is a different era in the NFL. Defense no longer wins championships. You can get by with simply having an opportunisitic one, just like the one the Saints had last season. And just like the one the Pats believe they have right now.

But that formula only works if your offense closes games when it gets the chance. That didn't happen last week against Indianapolis, and the Pats were fortunate to win that one.

But it did Thursday in Detroit, and the Pats got what they deserved.

Read Felger's report card on Saturday. E-mail him here and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m, on 98.5 5 the Sports Hub.

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.