By Nick Shook
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Any hope the New England Patriots had of getting tight end Rob Gronkowski back this season has officially been quashed.
The team has placed the big tight end on injured reserve, ending his season after he underwent back surgery Friday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Saturday. Gronkowski initially injured the back diving for a deep ball against the New York Jets last weekend.
It’s an abrupt end to a season that only briefly lived up to the promise it possessed for Gronkowski. That result isn’t the fault of Gronkowski for lack of effort, but lack of good health. The tight end got off to a late start due to a hamstring injury that hindered him throughout camp, and suffered a perforated lung after getting drilled by Seattle safety Earl Thomas three weeks ago. The back injury completed the in-season injury trifecta and, unfortunately for he and the Patriots, was the finishing blow.
As Kevin Patra noted Thursday, New England not only loses its biggest and best target, but also suffers a directly related statistical decline. Tom Brady‘s passer rating has been 20.1 points lower without Gronkowski than it is with Gronk, and the loss of personnel mismatch advantages can handcuff the Patriots‘ offense.
Now, the question is how they’ll adjust.
New England has often found offensive success by relying on not one, but two big, athletic tight ends. This season’s dynamic duo was Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, and the Patriots should be able to find some solace in the fact Bennett remains as a legitimate target. New England has also seen convenient improvement in rookie Malcolm Mitchell and the timely return of Dion Lewis, an elusive running back who excels catching passes out of the backfield. The cupboard isn’t bare — it’s just missing its finest china.
The loss doesn’t torpedo New England’s playoff chances, but it does hinder their Super Bowl aspirations and also opens the door for the hard-charging Dolphins, who haven’t lost since Oct. 9. Miami trails New England by two games with five to play, but still holds a season-ending date with the Patriots at home, leaving plenty of time for things to get interesting.
The Patriots, meanwhile, face a gauntlet of defenses to end the season: Los Angeles (ranked 12th in points allowed per game), Baltimore (fourth), Denver (ninth), the Jets (21st but 12th in yards per game) and Miami (16th) to end the season. New England boasts the third-best defense and might have to lean on it a bit more from here on out.