FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The season is going to end the way it started for both Rob Gronkowski and the New England passing attack -- with the Pro Bowl tight end sidelined due to a major injury and the Patriots' offense searching for a way to produce without its most important player aside from quarterback Tom Brady.
Gronkowski was knocked out of action in the third quarter of Sunday's win over the Cleveland Browns when a low hit on his right knee upended the playmaker and sent him to the locker room riding a cart. Tests Monday confirmed the team's initial diagnosis of a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, and the Patriots placed him on season-ending injured reserve Monday afternoon.
Gronkowski is heading back to the place where he spent so much of the past two years -- on the surgery table and in the rehab process.
After sitting out the first six weeks of the season recovering from offseason forearm and back surgeries, Gronkowski returned to action Oct. 20. In a six-plus-game span, he reprised his role as an effective offensive weapon, catching 39 passes for 592 yards and four touchdowns.
More important, an inconsistent offense that was battling problems in the red zone and on third down began to produce in the way that came to be expected in New England. Brady led an attack that scored 27 or more points in six of seven games after reaching that mark just twice in the first six weeks. In the most recent five games, Brady topped 300 yards four times and 400 yards twice. He had a passer rating of 91 or better in all five games after clearing that plateau just twice in the first six weeks.
When asked how the Patriots would again compensate for Gronkowski's absence, coach Bill Belichick gave the latest version of his "next man up" philosophy. This time he made it sound like the next combination of men.
"I think Rob is similar to the conversations we had with Jerod (Mayo) and Vince (Wilfork)," Belichick said, naming the Patriots' injured linebacker and nose tackle, respectively. "I don't think too many teams have players of that caliber at any position to just put in another Rob Gronkowski or put in another or put in another.
"Whoever is in there is going to have to fulfill some of those duties, but it may expand to more people, like we ended up having to do offensively, using more four-receiver sets instead of three receivers and a tight end or something like that. Or it might result in the tight ends getting more plays, or some combination there. Some of that may change from game to game, but obviously we've unfortunately had to play without Rob for games at the beginning of the season, and we (will) be in that situation again."
With three weeks of regular-season action left and the 10-3 Patriots leading the way at this point for at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round playoff bye, New England will have to undergo its third offensive identity change this season.
"It just shifts; you just have to find a different formula," Brady said Monday morning in his weekly interview with sports radio WEEI. "I think that's the important part. And Gronk provides a certain margin of error because of how talented a player he is, and the other guys play different roles for us."
Maybe looking for a silver lining in an incredibly dark injury cloud, Belichick referenced the experience the team gained having to battle each week earlier this season without the Pro Bowl tight end.
"We've dealt with that already this year," Belichick said. "I'd like to think there's going to be some carryover there, not only the first six weeks of the season but the entire training camp as well. That's the way we practiced and played most of the year, including the preseason games, and that's what, 10 games? So, it was great to have him back and he was obviously a big contributor for us. One way or the other, we'll have to adjust to it."
The early-season replacements as pass-catchers included rookie wide receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins, both of whom missed Sunday's game against Cleveland. Dobson has a foot injury, and Thompkins has a hip ailment. When they were subbing for Gronkowski during the first six weeks, the offense struggled more often than not. Back then, New England's defense was playing at a much higher level, but now injuries to Wilfork, Mayo and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly plus an overall banged-up secondary leave that side of the ball depleted as well.
"No one feels sorry for the Patriots," Brady said. "I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don't think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots."