FOXBORO, Mass. — “Don’t count out Touchdown Tom.”
It was tweeted in jest by the always-hilarious Jon Bois of SBNation.com midway through New England’s comeback effort over the Browns. Bois regularly tweets not to count out Tom Brady, or “touchdown tom” — no caps for Bois — on Sundays. It would be wise to take Bois’ sage advice, even without Brady’s biggest target. And “touchdown tom” proved that on Sunday.
Rob Gronkowski reportedly tore his ACL midway through the third quarter on Sunday. We’ll know for sure on Monday after Gronkowski goes through all the tests necessary, but it’s safe to assume New England will be without their All-Pro tight end for the remainder of the season.
The Patriots scored 27 points without Gronkowski on Sunday. And granted, it came against the lowly 4-9 Browns, but Cleveland’s defense has been solid all season. And they were spectacular for the first 2 1/2 quarters on Sunday.
But Brady made due with what was left and led his team on five straight scoring drives to finish the game. They got some help from Fozzy Whitaker, who knocked the ball back to Kyle Arrington on New England’s successful onside kick, and from the officials, who called Leon McFadden for pass interference over Josh Boyce on the Patriots’ first play after the recovery. But it was “Touchdown Tom” who delivered time and time again against Cleveland.
Brady was 16 of 20 in the fourth quarter with 142 yards in the fourth quarter. He was 20 of 27 with 210 yards after Gronkowski went down. He started out fairly horrid — for his standards, at least — and finished as strong as ever.
The Patriots have withstood a lot this season. They’ve lost Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Tommy Kelly and Sebastian Vollmer for good. And for stretches they’ve been without Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen, Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Steve Gregory and others. New England is fortunate they have many strong players, because they’ve been without a great deal of them.
It’s one thing to do this for one game, or 1 1/2 quarters, but is it really possible for New England to keep moving toward a Super Bowl without their star tight end?
The immediate reaction was no. The Patriots were finished without Gronkowski. They have looked stronger and stronger since the tight end came back and this injury will stop all forward momentum the team had coming into Sunday’s game.
But then New England rallied off 27 points and the mood changed. The Patriots weren’t bothered by Gronkowski’s injury. Well, obviously it affected them and they felt for their teammate, but it didn’t alter their play on the field. If anything, the Patriots got considerably better after Gronkowski went down.
This is the same team, after all, that went 5-1 to start the season without Gronkowski. And that included an impressive 30-27 victory over the Saints at Gillette Stadium (without Vereen).
Obviously for the most part, football games come down to talent. But something has to be said for a team that’s been tested over and over again in close games. Most teams won’t willingly give up on a game, but this Patriots team has proven that even after seeing a star player go down with an injury and even facing a 12-point deficit with less than three minutes on the clock, they have no intention of submitting.
“We’re just going to keep fighting,” Brady said. “Sometimes you may come up short, but it’s not going to be lack of effort or toughness. We showed that we have some of that.”
Actually, New England has shown they have a ton of that. After being down by six points after the first half, it wasn’t a matter of whether the Patriots would come back, just when and how.
They were down 17-3 at the half to Miami in Week 8. They looked hapless. They had been counted out for good. And they came back.
They were down again in Week 12, this time 24-0 to the Broncos. There was no possible way they could come back from that one. They did.
And they were down by two touchdowns with 2:39 left on the clock against Cleveland this week. And even though it took some luck, they pulled it off again.
At a certain point, a team can do the impossible so many times that it becomes foolish to count them out at all. The Patriots have reached that point.
So, can New England win a Super Bowl without Gronkowski, Wilfork, Mayo and Vollmer? Why not? They weren’t supposed to beat the Dolphins, Broncos or Browns, so who am I to say they can’t accomplish the seemingly impossible once again?