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Patriots can prevail without Gronkowski

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  January 15, 2013 01:27 PM

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There's no denying that Rob Gronkowski's absence adds degrees of difficulty to the Patriots' chances of overcoming the Baltimore Ravens Sunday evening at Gillette Stadium and advancing to their sixth Super Bowl since 2001.

Save for perhaps Randy Moss's vintage I'll-show-you performance in 2007, Gronk is the most unstoppable pass-catching force the Patriots have ever had. I'll take him at the peak of his powers over a motivated Moss without much of a second thought. And I liked and still like Moss.

So please don't count me among those underestimating Gronk's loss, even if I happen to believe in the talent remaining on the Patriots offense. There's no need to send out the bat signal for Kellen Winslow Jr. or Visanthe Shiancoe, not that they'd help much anyway. Gronk's void will be filled as much as possible by Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and the deep cache of weapons already in Brady's arsenal.

The small blessing, if we can call it that, is that this scenario is not a new one. They played five games without him after he first broke his arm November 18 against the Colts. They averaged 34.2 points per game while he was out. They will not find themselves in confused disarray, which was sometimes the case in the last Super Bowl when his injured ankle relegated him to a limping decoy.

bavaromark114.jpgThe Patriots can beat the Ravens without him, and I believe with their much-improved secondary and their diverse, rapid-fire offense -- among various other attributes -- they will be departing for New Orleans soon.

Me, I'm more frustrated we don't get to watch him anymore, at least for this season. Gronk, with his rampaging runs after the catch and comically ferocious celebratory spikes, is as fun to watch as any Patriot I can recall, and that includes Moss, an engaged Terry Glenn, young Curtis Martin, and even in a sense Tom Brady, whose efficient brilliance is so familiar and expected that it rarely dazzles (though that 33-yard touchdown pass to Shane Vereen Sunday was a recent, pure "Wow, we're lucky to watch this" moment).

His talent is of course otherworldly -- three seasons into his career, he's already among the most productive tight ends ever, with as many career touchdown catches (38) as John Mackey and one fewer than Mark Bavaro. Considering he'd be in the league for his blocking skills even if he had the hands of, say, Lovett Purnell, it does not require a leap of hyperbole to suggest he could be the greatest ever to play the position.

I'm not going to question why he was on the field Sunday -- the break is apparently in a slightly different spot that will always be at risk because of the nature of the first repair, and while his obvious protection of the injured wing suggested he didn't fully trust that it was healed, no one put his helmet on for him. Accepting the physical danger and brutal toll of the game, as Jason Taylor recently elaborated upon in gruesome detail, is turf tread by everyone who has ever played the game. Gronk knew what he was doing.

The frustration, for him and for us, is that he doesn't get to do what he does best Sunday, or two weeks beyond. It's not difficult to imagine a healthy Gronk exploiting a mismatch for the ages, beating the Ravens' Ray Lewis and turning the squirrel into proverbial road kill, or perhaps somehow avenging the season-altering ankle injury Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard caused last year.

But imagining it is all Patriots fans can do. Gronk is out, that massive and suddenly vulnerable forearm back in a cast, and while the team survives and possibly thrives without him, it's not the same.

We've seen the last of Gronk this year, but optimism prevails about this team and the player. This injury is not yet enough to make me wonder if we've already seen the best of him.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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