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December 10, 2013

Winning without Gronk isn't impossible

I guess it would be way too easy, maybe even logical, to say the New England Patriots Super Bowl hopes officially died with Rob Gronkowski’s injured knee Sunday afternoon.

It’s obvious that, as goofy and immature as he is, he is one of the best players in the National Football League. And the Patriots scored 12 less points (32 to 20) when he was not in the lineup earlier this year.

Or you could take another — possibly delusional — approach from Sunday’s 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns. The Patriots scored 27 points after Gronkowski was hurt.

Understandably, this won’t be easy. The Patriots relied heavily on Gronkowski, particularly when he was covered by a lone linebacker or safety, and when the Patriots were near the end zone.

But I would argue that, of all Patriots teams that could “survive” without Gronkowski, the 2013 Patriots might be it.

Here are five ways it could happen:

1. See Patriots run.

The Patriots have dedicated themselves, most of the time, to running the football. And we’re not talking about draw plays, when the opposing defenses are defensive-back loaded and expecting the pass. I’m talking about first down. I’m talking 3rd-and-2. I’m talking in between the tackles.

This Patriots’ offense has been built to run the ball more than it has since Gronkowski arrived in 2010, with two “power backs” in Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount, to go with the faster, pass-catching guys like Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden. Also, the fact the Patriots have a regular fullback, James Develin, whose role has picked up in importance the last two weekends.

If the Patriots have success running the ball, Tom Brady will be able to throw the ball to his version of the Smurfs.

2. Turnovers.

The Patriots defense can shoulder some of Gronk’s absence by getting back to forcing turnovers. That’s not easy with the huge injury list, but Aqib Talib, Brandon Spikes and “sleeper” Rob Ninkovich have a penchant for getting the ball back at opportune times. That must, must continue. When the Patriots don’t force turnovers — see Sunday’s game versus Cleveland — winning is twice as hard.

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