As we restlessly wait for Saturday night’s AFC divisional playoff bout between the Patriots and Colts, why not pass the time with a game of our own?
If the Pats could have just one of their injured players back on the field and healthy for the postseason, which would be the most helpful?
All due respect to Tommy Kelly, Sebastian Vollmer, Brandon Spikes, Josh Boyce, and even (barely) Adrian Wilson, but this is really a debate among three men: Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo.
Most would say, without hesitation, heal up the football-spiking, party boy’s ACL, MCL, and slight concussion and get Gronkowski back out on the field. In the short time he was a factor this season, Tom Brady’s offense soared to new heights. The QB’s preferred target accounted for 592 yards and four touchdowns on 39 catches in parts of only seven games in helping the Patriots from just 20.8 points per game without Gronkowski to a league-best 32.8 with him. In the red zone, the Pats caught fire, going from a 40.9 conversion rate to 64.7. The difference was staggering, and not simply in his direct production.
Never mind the fact that Gronkowski was nearly impossible to pull down when he had the ball, the former All-Pro’s sheer presence altered the way opposing teams planned for the Patriots because of his size, speed, physicality, and versatility. Having the hulking tight end on the field automatically opened up Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen, and others for more targets and his role as a blocker in the running game created holes for LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley. Brady benefited both mentally and statistically, and looked his typical elite self and far less human.
Still, the Patriots proved they could score without Gronkowski after his season-ending blow against the Browns on Dec. 8. The Pats scored all 27 points and rallied from a 19-3 deficit following the tight end’s departure, and then they posted 20, 41, and 34 points, respectively, versus the Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills. No, not the fiercest of competition on the other side of the ball, but the result was still three wins, 30.5 points per game, and 53.3 percent red zone efficiency over the regular season’s final four games.
Defense, however, has been a grave concern.
Captains Wilfork (Achilles) and Mayo (pectoral muscle) were both shut down within the season’s first six games, Wilfork after just four. With them went their consistency, snap-eating workhorse mentality, instinct-driven play, immeasurable leadership and, previously, profound durability.
The run-stuffing Wilfork is one of the best and brightest at his craft. The veteran defensive lineman wasn’t off to his best start but, historically, he has played like that rock in your yard that’s so massive and unmovable, you decide to just do everything around it. While he tied up linemen, it freed up space for his linebackers. With Wilfork, opponents ran for just 105 yards per game to sit the Patriots among the league's best. Without him, they raced for an average of 144 yards, which had the Pats’ run-D amid the worst. When the game’s top backs faced New England, the five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle was the Bermuda Triangle.
Add to that Wilfork’s mere existence on the field gave the Patriots’ defense more options against the pass in regard to blitzes, zone defense, and other areas of coverage. His healthy teammates have been left exposed both versus the run and in attempting to pressure the quarterback without that size and experience in the middle.
As for Mayo, versatility is his weapon of choice. The youthful vet can rush the passer, squash the run, cover backs and tight ends in short yardage against the pass, and call defensive audibles. He rarely missed a snap and made a difference in various packages. To give you an idea of his impact, sophomore Dont’a Hightower led the Patriots in total tackles this season with 97 in 16 games. Mayo had 55 – and he played in six. The former First-Team All-Pro linebacker is an absolute monster who paced his squad in tackles each of the five previous years.
When Wilfork and Mayo both went down, the Pats were allowing an average of 16.2 points per game. In a dozen fill-in by committee, rookie-dominated games since, that number jumped to 20.1. However, the Patriots held their opponents to 23 points or fewer in five of those first six games, a feat they’ve accomplished just three times since. Their opposition’s red zone efficiency also skyrocketed from 41.2 percent to 63.6. Part of those increases, of course, has come from injuries to other players, most especially in the secondary, but the problems started with the losses of two defensive captains.
Looking at the competition that remains in the NFL playoffs, it’s fair to favor Gronkowski as the healthy returnee if given the choice, but it’s not without some pause and questions.
The Patriots should certainly beat the Colts, even without reinforcements. But, if they do, most would then expect a trip to Denver. Would the Pats be better suited to have Gronkowski for a shootout against the most prolific offense in league history – such as when New England pulled out a stunning 34-31 overtime win at home in Week 12 with the tight end on the field – or would they be more likely to capitalize in enemy territory with a game-changing guy like Mayo to attack? While unlikely, it is possible Brady’s troops could do enough against one of the worst defenses in the NFL as presently constituted?
Or, suppose the Pats could top the Colts and then either the Broncos or Chargers no matter which of the three players they had back. The odds might be stacked against them either way, but who then would be the biggest help in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks, Panthers, Niners, or Saints?
That’s a two-fold discussion.
On the one hand, initial logic might still dictate Gronkowski since all four of those potential foes are incredibly strong against the pass, but might Wilfork be more valuable because Seattle, San Francisco, and Carolina all have elite running games, and the first two along with New Orleans have shown an ability to score at will? Or maybe Mayo, given his overall resourcefulness?
On the other, in New England’s last two Super Bowl defeats, it was its two high-octane offenses that came up short, not the defenses. It’s tough to say which ultimately is the tastiest recipe for a championship.
Gronkowski is the man I’d welcome back with the widest of open arms, but it isn’t as easy a decision as it might have seemed.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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