Sport: The GridIron – Are the Patriots Gronked?
Wow! Those in the know are calling it the greatest Divisional Round in NFL play-off history, and who am I to argue? In an incredible weekend of football, 28 points – four touchdowns – would not have won a single game as the 8 teams involved made a mockery of the maxim that defences win championships. From practically the very first kick-off, we struggled to draw breath as each game delivered drama, incredible performances and unbelievable comebacks until the weekend’s intrigue ran out of gas, along with the Texans, midway through the 3rd quarter in Foxboro.
First up, the Ravens shocked everyone (none more than this writer) as Joe Flacco continued to show that he just might be the Eli Manning of the AFC by bringing the Ravens back from the dead in the final minute to win the game in second overtime against the Broncos. Next up, Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers second year quarterback, ripped up the record books with his performance on the ground and through the air to eventually break the resistance of Aaron Rodgers and his Packers. On Sunday, the Falcons and Seahawks played out an incredible game that saw the lead change hands twice inside the final 35 seconds as the Falcons just about hung on for their first playoff victory with Mike Smith and Matt Ryan.
As a finale, the Texans-Patriots game was a let-down for everybody but Patriot fans who were no doubt quite content for this game to resemble the massacre that occurred when these teams met in Week 14. The Patriots were too smart, too fast, too versatile and too good for a Texans team that has petered out in the final weeks of the season after promising so much early on. One noticeable cloud on the horizon for New England fans however is the loss of Rob Gronkowski for the rest of the year after he re-broke the same forearm that kept him out for 4 weeks earlier in the year.
The impact that Gronkowski has had since the Patriots drafted him 3 years ago is huge. Former Patriot Tedy Bruschi this week called Gronkowski the second best player on the Patriots offence after Tom Brady. Simply put, he is the most dominant tight-end in football having caught 11 touchdowns this year, 2 more than any other tight-end and only 3 shy of the league’s best, despite missing 5 games. Although he can be devastating all over the field (790 yards on 55 receptions in 2012) he is especially effective inside the redzone where his size and strength allows him to be a ferocious blocker in the running game and creates mismatches in the passing game, meaning he is Tom Brady’s favourite target in this area of the field.
The loss of a player as good as ‘Gronk’ should therefore present a major blow to the Patriots’ chances of winning this year’s Super Bowl. However, the numbers from the 4 regular season games they had to make do without Gronkowski, as well as Sunday’s game against the Texans when he left the game in the first quarter, suggests that may not be the case, even in the redzone.
For a start the Patriots are 4-1 over the course of those 5 games without Gronkowski, with their only loss coming at the hands of the 49ers in Week 15 when a second half comeback fell just short. The Patriots average a league best 35 points a game with Gronkowski in the team; however, this only drops by 1 point during his absence. In the redzone, again the Patriots lead the league this year in terms of efficiency scoring a touchdown 69.74% of the time they get inside the opponents 20 yard line. In the 5 games Gronkowski missed, the Patriots efficiency here was 68.4% and if we discount their final drive on Sunday when they purposefully ran clock and kicked a field goal late in the game, its 72% (13 touchdowns from 18 visits)!
Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have managed to adjust their offence so that it barely misses a beat despite losing a player as dominant and valuable as Gronkowski clearly is. Although 5 games is a relatively small sample size, 3 of the games involved San Francisco and Houston, both of whom boast 10 ten defences in the league. The consistency is remarkable, but speaks volumes for the ‘next man up’ attitude that the Patriots organisation lives by and should allay any worries that Gronkowski’s absence makes the Patriots’ offence any less formidable.
This is the second year running that the Patriots have suffered an injury to Gronkowski deep into the post-season. However, the timing of Gronkowski’s injury this year with the original break occurring in week 12 against the Jets has allowed the Patriots time that they didn’t have last year, when Gronkowski suffered a high-ankle sprain in the AFC conference game, 2 weeks before the Super Bowl. Indeed the finality of Gronkowski’s injury may ultimately be a blessing, as there is no second guessing how useful or effective he may be. The Patriots went into last year’s Super Bowl with a half-fit Gronkowski, who was totally ineffective and the decision to play him may have ultimately contributed to the Patriots losing a game that went down to the wire.
No Gronkowski may be better than half a Gronkowski.
- This writer is eating a large degree of crow this week having dismissed the Ravens chances of upsetting Peyton Manning in Denver. I thought it would be a blowout with the Ravens defence succumbing to age and high-altitude in the second half, however the unit played extremely well and ultimately Denver imploded on both sides of the ball and on the side-line towards the end of the game. Peyton Manning is now 9-11 in the post-season going one and done 8 times. However despite the bad interception he threw in overtime this loss is the fault of Rahim Moore and John Fox’s conservatism late in the fourth quarter.
- As expected, Aaron Rodgers was unable to overcome the deficiencies the Packers had on defence as the 49ers overpowered Green Bay. The Packers have struggled all year to stop the run and Colin Kaepernick was irresistible setting a record for rushing yards by a quarterback in any NFL game. I’m not sure I entirely buy Kaepernick and the 49ers defence because of how badly the Packers have been all year on defence, however I think that they match up nicely against the Falcons defence. In two games against the Falcons this year Cam Newton was 38/59 for 502 yards, 4tds and 0 interceptions whilst running for 202 yards and 2 touchdowns.
- Pete Carroll made two blunders which cost the Seahawks against the Falcons. The first was not taking the field goal on 4th and 1 at the Atlanta 11 in the second quarter. Down 14-0 at the time his team needed to get into the game with a score and not taking the easy points was a panic move. The second blunder was icing Matt Bryant as he missed his first attempt at the game winning field goal for Atlanta. I really hate when coaches do this and of course Bryant made the second attempt.
- Some interesting moves on coaching this week with news that Denver’s offensive coordinator Mike McCoy is moving to divisional rivals the San Diego Chargers as their new head coach. This is a potentially good move for the Chargers who have a lot of talent on that roster, far more than they have shown recently. It also looks likely that Seattle will lose their defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley with him being linked to Philadelphia (although Chip Kelly is set to get this job) and Jacksonville. Seattle had the stingiest defence in the league this year conceding a league best 15.3 points a game.