Well, at least Gronk got up.
The Patriots should have been able to leave Orchard Park, New York yesterday with more than just moral victories — hell, they did leave with more than just moral victories.
They captured the real thing in convincing fashion, securing first place in the AFC East with a 37-22 win that was more meaningful and reassuring than we ever figured this game would be when the schedule was revealed.
The AFC East still goes through them. Tom Brady is not about to cede his job to his understudy anytime soon –we’ll get back to you Jimmy Garoppolo’s progress in, oh, February 2016, OK? — and good heavens how foolish and premature does that discussion feel now?
The offensive line, duct-taped together by the thrifty duo of DeGuglielmo and McGyver, is getting the job done despite no continuity, the defense is as talented as any they’ve had in years, and Gronk is looking like his pre-knee injury, pre-arm injury force-of-nature self.
It’s all good. Well, mostly good. With the big win — yes, in fact, an October triumph in Buffalo can be meaningful — came a couple of big personnel losses. And as we’ve learned repeatedly and with great disappointment the last three seasons, too many of the latter can prevent the former from happening in the postseason. There comes a point of diminishing returns — and that point usually reveals itself in the AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots lost both linebacker Jerod Mayo and running back Stevan Ridley to what appeared to be serious knee injuries Sunday. In a sense, their injuries turned the actual victory into a moral victory. Damn, we lost Jerod and Stevan. At least we won the game.
Given that teammates were talking about Mayo’s as a tragedy and were also quick to salute Ridley and what he means to the offense (at least since Josh McDaniels remembered two weeks ago that he is allowed to give him more than five carries per game), it certainly seems that we won’t be seeing either anytime soon, possibly for the remainder of the season.
During his press conference this morning, Bill Belichick discussed how Mayo’s various responsibilities may be filled. It’s the closest he’s come, at least as far as I can recall, to acknowledging the magnitude of an injury before the player’s status is formally announced.
Attrition is unavoidable in the NFL — it’s one of my prime frustrations as a football fan, that one injury can destroy even the best-laid plans, and yes, I realize the hypocrisy in that given that the Tom Brady era got its start because of Drew Bledsoe’s brutal encounter with Mo Lewis in Week 2, 2001.
If we can be as coldly unsympathetic as the sport of football itself, the Patriots can probably survive the Ridley injury. Oh, he’s a damn good back, and his versatility and between-the-tackles toughness will be missed. But there’s decent depth on the roster with Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and James White, and perhaps even a veteran such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis can be brought in as support. It sucks to lose him. But it’s endurable.
The Mayo injury is different. He’s the nerve center of the Patriots defense, the brains of the operation, the one charged with diagnosing the offense’s intentions and making sure the other 10 players out there with him are working in unison.
Mayo gets too much grief from the Hey, Look — A Shiny Object! crowd because he’s not a flashy playmaker, but anyone who doesn’t recognize how essential he is must have stopped paying attention after he got hurt right around this time last year.
I do not know how they will even begin to replace him, and given how the Patriots finally have a defense that can pick up slack when the offense slumbers, his injury is some cruel combination of disappointing and devastating.
Yet something else must be acknowledged: it actually could have been worse yesterday. Brady was folded, spindled, and damn near mutilated by the Bills defense in the first half. I still don’t know how he didn’t hurt his knee on that Jerry Hughes cheap shot.
And we all held our breath in the third quarter when Gronk had to be helped off the field after taking another hard hit and bouncing off the turf.
He got up, even came back into the game a few plays later. It was a reassuring moment on a day of an important victory clouded by two difficult losses. Losing Gronk? Now that would have been too much to take for one Sunday.