FOXBORO, Mass. — On paper, a now 10-3 team beating a 4-9 squad 27-26 seems surprising, but hardly miraculous.
And, if anything, the initial shock is that the Patriots won by just one point over the Browns. Sometimes “on paper” can be deceiving.
A one-point victory, highlighted by a recovered onside kick and two touchdowns within less than three minutes, would usually leave the winning team ecstatic, elated, unable to contain its excitement. But the mood was tempered in New England’s locker room.
Matthew Mulligan, whose locker sits directly next to Rob Gronkowski‘s, stood bravely at his locker and spoke for over 10 minutes about his friend’s serious knee injury. Mulligan kneeled with Gronkowski as the monstrous tight end laid crumpled on the ground for an interminably long time.
Mulligan was there to help lift Gronkowski off the ground. He was there to help Gronkowski onto the cart that came out for him as the All Pro, who had already missed so much time with forearm and back injuries, could barely stand on his own.
The two tight ends are an unlikely pair. Mulligan wears bible verses on the backs of his T-shirts and said numerous times that he would be praying for Gronkowski. The Maine product is the family man. Gronkowski is the ultimate partier, who was spotted drinking and bro-ing around even with a cast on his arm days removed from surgery.
But football brings Mulligan and Gronkowski together. And that’s why Mulligan was there for his friend.
“I’m just doing what a teammate would do. What he would do for me,” Mulligan said. “You stand around them. Anything they ask you to do. You try to help your teammate. As far as what was said, I’ll keep that between Rob and I.”
Mulligan’s voice wavered at times. It wasn’t all despair for Mulligan — he smiled when asked about his attempt to hurdle over Joe Haden. But when talking about Gronkowski, Mulligan kept it serious and solemn.
“He’s just my buddy. And I know he would do the same thing for me,” Mulligan said. “Obviously a lot of emotion there for him and for me. I’ve seen him work so hard from the other things he’s had to come back from. I just wanted to be there any way I possibly could. Just to know — sometimes it’s nice to have familiar faces around and guys — just anything I could do at that point for him, whatever it may have needed to be, I was trying to do.”
“You spend so much time with these men on this team. A lot of times more than your family. So, when something happens that’s out of the ordinary and it’s a difficult situation, you feel for them. It’s just like your brother. I can honestly say, it was very difficult to watch. But that’s why you go over and try to pick him up any way you possibly can. It was physically, because they asked me to do it. You really just try to bond together and he would do the same for me.”
Mulligan came to the Patriots as a pseudo replacement for Gronkowski. He’s played in every game since Week 2 and has stuck around even as Gronkowski came back from his back and forearm injuries. Since then, the two have become close.
“Yeah, I mean, we spend a lot of time together,” Mulligan said. “We’re right next to each other. We like to lift together and everything like that. Yeah, I definitely consider him a really good friend. He’s a strong guy in a lot of ways, mentally, physically, obviously a phenomenal football player, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Now, Mulligan will likely be forced to try to replace his friend as the season winds down and the Patriots head for the playoffs. Mulligan is not Gronk, he’ll be the first to admit that, but New England will need to reshuffle its offense again, just as they did when they unexpectedly lost Aaron Hernandez before the season. And just as they did when they lost Shane Vereen for nine weeks after the first game of the season. And just as they did without Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins on Sunday.
At this point, we’re far past picturing this team at full health. What we can focus on is the players who remain on the field and the miraculous comeback they just had. That’s what Mulligan and the rest of his teammates will try to do on Monday. But losing Gronkowski wasn’t something any of the players were just going to gloss over after the game. Even Bill Belichick gave an update on Gronkowski’s health — something the head coach never does — saying he was being taken to the hospital for observation and evaluation.
“We’re all there with him,” Tom Brady said about Gronkowski. “We love him and he’s a big part of this team. We’ll see where he’s at.”
It’s not looking good. But this team scored 27 points without him against a good defense. This team has been through it all this season and they’re standing with a 10-3 record. Now, it appears, they’ll have to try to finish without Gronk.