For the last half-decade or so, the Patriots have had two players who could be designated as irreplaceable without a moment's consideration.
One on offense. One on defense.
Sure, there were others who were vital to the Sunday cause. At left tackle, Matt Light always had Brady's back. Randy Moss was a downfield dynamo in 2007. Wes Welker's injury at the end of the '10 season was a gut-punch they could not overcome.
Then there's the double what-if with Rob Gronkowski: had he managed to remain healthy the past two postseasons, there may well have been another pair of duck boat parades in our city.
But Brady and Wilfork, the two remaining holdovers from the last Super Bowl championship nine years ago, are on a different level. They are the respective fulcrums of the offense and defense, and when they are absent, everything changes.
We found this out with Brady a half-quarter into the 2008 season. Matt Cassel was more than passable in relief after Brady's brutal knee injury that year ... and yet he was nothing close to Brady.
He had his moments where he played great, and it was fun to watch him grow into a quality quarterback. But it's another request entirely to replicate true greatness over a full season, time and again. Cassel could not do it. Of course he couldn't. Who could?
Five seasons later, a similar if more subtle burden will fall on someone -- or more likely, Joe Vellano and a someone or two who aren't on the roster at the moment -- to attempt to replace Wilfork.
During the Patriots' 30-23 victory over the Falcons last night, the 10th-year nose tackle departed early after suffering what the team said was a right ankle injury. But when he required a ride from the cart to get off the field, it was hard to avoid fearing the worst.
Unfortunately, the morning brought confirmation that dread was the correct instinct. According to the Globe's Shalise Manza Young, Wilfork suffered a torn Achilles' tendon and is probably headed for season-ending injured reserve.
A few well-chosen curses aimed at the football gods might feel cathartic, but it doesn't change the reality. The Patriots are left trying to replace the irreplaceable.
No, Wilfork wasn't having anything approaching his finest season, and I suspect we'll find out that he was hurting more than anyone outside of his own huddle knew.
But even when he was playing just adequately by his standards, he tied up multiple linemen while holding his ground, allowing the linebackers behind him an unobstructed path to the football. It's a thankless and utterly essential job, and he's so good at it that it may someday lead to acknowledgment in Canton.
When Wilfork was at his best, watching linemen attempt to move him was like watching children attempting to move a refrigerator. It wasn't happening, sometimes to the point of laughter. Once, the end result of his dominance was what we now and forever call a buttfumble.
Now, it's next-man-up mode for a player who cannot be replaced by any single player. Rather than appreciating that the Patriots are 4-0 with yards and yards of room for improvement, we're left wondering whether Richard Seymour and Bill Belichick might mend fences and how the Patriots ended up in a spot where someone named Joe Vellano is now being counted on.
The Wilfork injury is a bummer for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that it puts a damper on the good feelings we should have for this team this morning.
These Patriots are a work in progress, particularly on offense. At times they can be hard to watch, at least by their recent Brady-at-his-peak standards. Sunday's game did get unnecessarily tense late, and if you demand dazzling aesthetics with your spotless won-lost record, this isn't the team for you.
But they are progressing while deftly deploying the personnel -- and the various skill-sets belonging to that personnel -- to play to their strengths and exploit mismatches.
Their workmanlike approach and full utilization of their offensive depth isn't going to help your fantasy football team, but it's pretty fun to watch, especially the mix-and-match running game of Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, and Brandon Bolden. Anyone pining for Danny Woodhead isn't paying attention.
In getting off to this 4-0 start -- their first since 2007 -- the defense has picked up the slack for the offense. Aqib Talib has been sensational at cornerback, there is an existent and fairly consistent pass rush, and the continuity from last season's unit seems to be having a positive effect.
On both sides of the ball, the Patriots do an extraordinary job of getting production out of players who are lucky if they have their own football card.
Gronk's out another week or two? Well, hey, here's a touchdown for Matthew Mulligan, another overachieving misfit from Jack Cosgrove's Maine program.
But there does come a tipping point with injury and attrition. There are very few players who are truly essential and irreplaceable in the Patriots' scheme of things.
Vince Wilfork was one -- was the one -- on the Patriots' defense. Years ago, Richard Seymour was another.
It might be time to mend that fence and give Seymour a New England sequel.
Next-man-up is a fine concept in most circumstances. But this isn't most circumstances.
Wilfork went down just when things were looking up. Extraordinary measures may be the only way to replace such an extraordinary player.
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.