Life without Rob Gronkowski (at least temporarily) has begun for the Patriots, and their first test will take place Thursday night against the Jets in New York (8 p.m. ET, NBC).
Intrigue has never been an issue when these two teams face off, as the Rex Ryan-led Jets have largely provided a stiff test to the Patriots. Couple that with the absence of Gronkowski and a prime-time slot on Thanksgiving, and this game is likely to be anxiously anticipated by many.
Questions have arisen as to how the Patriots will replace Gronkowski, if such a feat is even possible. Here’s the truth of the matter: Leading into Thursday, we have no idea. Since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2010, Gronkowski has been an offensive staple for the Patriots, a dominant force and impressively durable -- he had never missed a game.
The Patriots are entering literally uncharted territory without their hulking third-year tight end, but it won’t be the first time this team has dealt with an injury to a star player. In 2012 alone, the Patriots have played six games without Aaron Hernandez and four without guard Logan Mankins.
It’s impossible to quantify how much a single player means to an offense, but Gronkowski’s gaudy statistics paint an accurate picture of the most dominant tight end in all of football. His injury presents the Patriots with a challenge; there are no two ways about it.
But the show must go on, and, as kickoff draws close, here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots take on the Jets for some Turkey Day football.
1. Dealing with Gronkowski’s absence, of course. As we’ve already mentioned, we don’t yet know how the team will deal with being without Gronk. Will Visanthe Shiancoe and Daniel Fells be called upon to replicate his presence, albeit likely at a less effective rate? Will the team turn to more four-receiver sets? Or perhaps sprinkle in some sets with three wide receivers and two running backs? Might Thursday be a night when the Patriots lean heavily on the running game? Time will tell, but Josh McDaniels is a tactful game planner who has dealt with adjustments before and can maneuver on the fly when needed to.
2. Hernandez in play? Indications are pointing toward tight end Aaron Hernandez returning to the lineup, and that’s a boon for the Patriots' offense without Gronkowski. The two share a position in title but not in role. Hernandez is much more a move tight end who can line up anywhere in the formation, and Gronkowski can dominate as an in-line blocker with his speed, strength and size advantage. Hernandez is a matchup nightmare for defenses when healthy, and we’ll be watching his right ankle closely. If he’s 100 percent, that spells trouble for opposing defenses and really makes the Patriots dangerous near the goal line because he keeps a defense honest with the threat of catching as well as blocking.
3. Containing Sanchez. Mark Sanchez has endured his ups and downs this season, but he was very good against the Patriots in the teams' first matchup, surpassing 300 yards through the air. The Patriots’ secondary did well to limit big plays against the Jets in Week 7, and it likely will look to replicate that success while cutting down on the underneath yardage allowed. Sanchez has enough mobility to buy time in the pocket and has the arm to make throws when given time. The Patriots could be without Chandler Jones on Thursday night, but will need to find ways to disrupt Sanchez nonetheless.
4. Back on track in the running game. The Patriots haven’t struggled in the running game in their consecutive victories after the bye, but there’s room for improvement. One has to wonder how much the absence of starting guards Mankins and Dan Connolly has played a part in the decreased rushing efficiency, and the Patriots need to find a way to get back on track running the football and stopping the run, as well. The Patriots haven’t held a team under 100 yards rushing since Week 6, and they will need to keep things tight against a Jets team that has been known to want to establish a ground-and-pound tempo on offense. Primary back Shonn Greene isn’t a speedster or much of a big-play threat (he has just two runs of 20-plus yards this season), but he’s durable and dependable to carry a heavy load.
5. Divisional implications. After sweeping the season series with the Bills and sneaking past the Jets in overtime in a Week 7 win, the Patriots are 60 minutes from firmly planting their foot on the rest of the division with another win over the Jets. A victory would put the Patriots effectively five games ahead of the Jets, and they would close in on yet another division title. Although two contests with the Dolphins remain, the Patriots can distance themselves from the pack this weekend. Buffalo travels to Indianapolis (where Andrew Luck and the Colts have been much better than what they showed this past Sunday), and the Dolphins host a tough Seahawks squad. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have talked about how the season really starts right around Thanksgiving, and each victory the Patriots earn from here on out comes with a significant payoff.