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Agony of Rob Gronkowski's injury tempers the thrill of Patriots' comeback victory

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 9, 2013 02:17 AM

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The NFL is structured for television better than any other sport. But sometimes this visceral noise of the game is lost when watching from the couch.

Those always enjoyable miked-up segments and the insider's majesty long provided by NFL Films clue us in to the sounds that accompany the fury. But if you don't remind yourself of what's actually going on out there, an NFL game can seem -- and sound -- to a viewer like the players are brutalizing each other in relative aural peace.

The true, vicious context of what's happening during every single play -- the barking, cursing, and trash-talking, the groans and roars as players crash their rattled skeletons into each other again and again -- isn't always apparent on television.

Oh, we see the vicious ferocity of the game, in between Cialis commercials and the announcers' gaffes and guffaws. But we don't always hear it.

Don't you wish we had never heard it Sunday?

Oh, hell, there was plenty of visual evidence that Rob Gronkowski, the Patriots' force-of-nature tight end, was seriously injured after being chopped down at the knees by Browns safety T.J. Ward after a 21-yard reception in the third quarter of the Patriots' come-from-behind 27-26 victory Sunday.

It wasn't that he didn't get up, though that was alarming enough. It's that he barely moved, his legs outstretched and immobile while both hands gripped his right knee.

The pain was etched on his face, and when Browns defenders joined Gronkowski's teammates in paying homage as he was being helped onto the dreaded cart, you knew it was bad because the men who play the game knew it was bad.

But the most jarring confirmation came in the middle of all that, when a microphone -- perhaps one CBS planted along the sideline, perhaps that of an official, perhaps one taken away from Steve Tasker by an annoyed viewer -- picked up Gronkowski's screams of agony as the trainers and doctors arrived on the scene.

"My [expletive] knee!'' he wailed in a voice so unfamiliar from his usual goofy affability.

And then, a moment later, before Matt Mulligan hoisted him on to the cart:

"I [expletive] can't!"

We saw how Gronk was injured, and the late-night reports that he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament -- season-ending, if so -- hardly came as a surprise.

We heard just how injured he was, and it was so disconcerting to hear Hulk-tough, happy-go-lucky Gronk scream in pain that I've burned my first couple of hundred words here talking about this rather than what we'd prefer to take away from Sunday -- the appreciation of another thrilling comeback, which according to ESPN Stats and Info made them the first team since the 1993 Philadelphia Eagles to win three straight games in which they trailed by double-digits in the second half.

This was an incredible victory, with two touchdowns in the final 61 seconds bookmarked around a recovered onside kick. Sure, there were self-inflicted degrees of difficulty against a Browns team that entered at 4-8, but even the best teams win ugly now and then. The Patriots have now won at least 10 games in 11 straight years, which considering the landscape of the NFL is as extraordinary a feat as anything Bill Belichick has accomplished.

The Patriots deserve to celebrate this one. I just don't know how they can.

"It was like you are in a bad dream,'' said special teams ace Matt Slater, describing the immediate aftermath of Gronkowski's injury. "You’re hoping you wake up and it isn’t really happening because that kid has been through so much and he’s worked his butt off to overcome a lot of different things at a young age.

“He means so much to this football team. Not only what he does on the field, but his locker room, his presence. He brings a child-like joy to the locker room. You see him out there on the field in pain. It was a tough pill to swallow.”

There was some irony to be found in that the Patriots' offense came to life after Gronkowski's injury. After all, he is the second-most important member of the unit, his presence changing everything.

He missed the first six games of this season after offseason forearm and back surgery. In the five games he played, he caught 37 passes for 560 yards. It was not coincidence that the offense scored roughly 11 points per game more with Gronkowski than without.

There's a temptation to suggest that the attrition is now insurmountable, Gronkowski's injury serving as the death knell on this team's hopes of winning its first Super Bowl since 2004. I'm not ready to do that. The AFC is weak, and this Patriots team, tattered though it is, remains tough. Let it play out before proceeding with the postmortems.

"We’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve got to just keep bouncing back,'' said Brady. "No one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots."

It's pretty clear they're not going to feel sorry for themselves. But as we watch Gronkowski fall, a sixth surgery since last November seeming rather likely, it's hard to avoid feeling bad for the guy, who really is the goodhearted, approachable bro next door.

Sadly, the potential Greatest Tight End Ever has yet another what-if tagged to his potential legacy -- if only Gronk had been healthy, how more Super Bowls would the Patriots have won?

For all of these stirring comebacks the Patriots have made lately, the one comeback we desperately want to see probably won't happen until sometime next season. Until that return, Gronk, be well. We know what you went through. While we can't feel your pain, we'll never forget hearing it.

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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