Patriots’ Loss to Dolphins Shows Team May Have Reached Breaking Point After Rob Gronkowski’s Season-Ending Injury

Tavon Wilson, Marcus Cannon, Brandon SpikesThe 2013 Patriots probably are not good enough to win a Super Bowl.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t or can’t still come away from MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2 as Super Bowl champs, but any team should have some sort of breaking point when it comes to season-ending injuries. It’s easy to point to the 2010 Packers, who won Super Bowl XLV without linebackers Brad Jones and Nick Barnett, tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant and 11 other players who were placed on injured reserve, as a team that succeeded through injuries.

But losing those 15 players is very different than being without nose tackle Vince Wilfork, tight end Rob Gronkowski, linebacker Jerod Mayo and tackle Sebastian Vollmer, four All Pros, plus defensive tackle Tommy Kelly, the player who was supposed to, and briefly did, solve New England’s issues at getting pressure from the middle of the defense. Throw in a couple banged-up receivers and a secondary that resembles the walking wounded and the chances for a title this year appear even more slim.

Wide receiver Austin Collie, one of three main targets on the field down the final drive, was cut by the 49ers during Aug. 31 roster cuts. Defensive tackles Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga and tight end Matthew Mulligan have also played starring roles lately for New England. All three players were cut during Aug. 31 cuts. Siliga couldn’t even latch on with the Seahawks’ practice squad. Now he’s filling in for Wilfork as the team’s starting nose tackle.

They have a fullback (James Develin), playing tight end. Undrafted rookie free agents are strung throughout the team, including defensive tackle Joe Vellano and guard Josh Kline, who played key reserve roles on Sunday.

Panic was tempered when the Patriots managed to still beat the Browns in Week 14 after Gronkowski had been lost for the season with a torn ACL and MCL. But that last second-surge could be compared to how a chicken is still able to run around without its head. It does so with adrenaline. It’s possible New England was functioning and driving on adrenaline, not talent.

Now expectations should be tempered after a brutal loss to the Dolphins. It wasn’t the offense to blame for the last-second collapse as much as it was the defense, who allowed Miami to drive down the field despite facing third-and-16 and fourth-and-5 scenarios. Wilfork, Mayo, Kelly or a healthy secondary would have been useful. And when the offense got into the red zone, Gronkowski would have come in handy.

Crazy things happen in the playoffs. If the Patriots can still get the No. 2 seed (the No. 1 seed is hardly achievable at this point), then anything can happen. The Broncos lost to the Chargers in the cold, so what’s to say they can beat whoever emerges from the Wild Card round or the Patriots, if both teams make the AFC Championship game, in similar weather?

But to get that No. 2 seed, New England has to beat a Ravens team that has won four of their last five and whose playoff chances are at stake in every matchup. And if New England loses to Baltimore, they may have to face them again in the playoffs.

It’s not time to completely write off this team’s chances in the playoffs, but next week’s matchup will be telling. If they can rebound and prove that the season didn’t die when T.J. Ward placed a helmet on Gronkowski’s knee, the Patriots will still have a chance. But if they choke away their chances at a better seed in the playoffs for the second straight week, it might be time to cancel any reservations for New Jersey in February or even Denver in late January.

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