Rapid Reaction: New England Patriots

December, 8, 2013
12/08/13
4:44
PM ET

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Sharing thoughts on the New England Patriots' stunning 27-26 comeback win over the Cleveland Browns:

What it means: Everything. Not the outcome of the game, which was another amazing Patriots comeback that was only solidified after Browns kicker Billy Cundiff was short with a 58-yard attempt at the final gun. Tight end Rob Gronkowski being carted off the field midway through the third quarter with a serious leg injury is a season changer for New England. Gronkowski is that much of a difference-maker. In the postgame news conference Patriots coach Bill Belichick said, "Rob was taken to the hospital for a observation and evaluation on his injury. That's all I have on that."

Measuring Gronkowski's impact: Since his return to action on Oct. 20, Gronkowski almost single-handedly changed the Patriots' offense. The Patriots were 22nd in points per game before Gronkowski returned; they were seventh entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 30th in red zone efficiency without Gronkowski; they were 11th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 19th in passing yards per game without Gronkowski; they were 10th entering Sunday's game. The Patriots were 16th in first downs per game before Gronkowski returned; they were fifth entering Sunday's game.

Where the Patriots go from here without Gronkowski: Assuming tests reveal what many assume -- that Gronkowski will be out for the season with a leg/knee injury -- the Patriots won't be able to find a player to replace his production. They'll need to find new ways to create offense, such as what we saw in parts of the second half with running back Shane Vereen becoming a greater part of the passing offense. From a pure 1-for-1 personnel standpoint, tight end D.J. Williams -- who was released on Wednesday -- could be brought back to add another tight end, along with Matthew Mulligan and recovering Michael Hoomanawanui (knee).

Unbelievable comeback: Gronkowski's injury cast a cloud over a remarkable comeback. How do the Patriots keep digging themselves into an early hole, when it seems the game is lost, only to pull it out? It's one of their most redeeming qualities -- they are hard to knock out and play all 60 minutes (and sometimes beyond). This was simply stunning, requiring an onside kick to be recovered with one minute remaining -- and the benefit of what looked like a generous 29-yard pass-interference penalty -- to set up the winning touchdown. Wow. Patriots fans have seen some of the ugliest football the Patriots have ever played this season ... and also some of the most remarkable comebacks.

Where's the protection? When considering why the Patriots' offense struggled as much as it did, after crediting the Browns' defense, one area to look at from a New England perspective is inconsistent offensive line play. Quarterback Tom Brady was under pressure at various points in the game. Left tackle Nate Solder and left guard Logan Mankins, arguably the two best linemen on the team, were beaten for sacks.

Stock watch -- coaching staff: Falling: One week after being praised for its in-game adjustments, the Patriots' staff finds itself in this category, as the Patriots sputtered out of the gate with another slow start. Something isn't getting through.

Ridley back in the mix with 17 snaps: After he was a healthy scratch last Sunday in Houston because of ball-security issues, running back Stevan Ridley was active and used as part of a committee with Shane Vereen and LeGarrette Blount. Ridley was the third player in the mix, as we counted him on the field for 17 snaps (including penalties).

What's next: The Patriots travel to South Florida to face the Dolphins on Sunday, Dec. 15 (1 p.m. ET).

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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