FOXBORO, Mass. — There were times through the first six weeks of the season when the 2013 Patriots resembled the 2001 to 2004 teams that brought three Super Bowls rings to New England.
The defense took charge, bailing out the offense on numerous occasions, and Tom Brady played passable, but not like a superstar — though he did have two vintage fourth-quarter comebacks. Now that Rob Gronkowski has been cleared by doctors and Tommy Kelly, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Aqib Talib are expected to miss Sunday’s game (despite Talib’s presence at practice on Friday), though, the Patriots will have to play more like New England teams from recent history if they hope to beat the suddenly competitive Jets in New York.
The defense should still be solid, but without the top player at every layer on defense, the team should by no means rely on that unit. The pressure will be back on the offense, especially if Gronkowski suits up (just because he was cleared doesn’t mean he will play, though he is expected to).
Tom Brady should be playing with more confidence, the red zone offense should be much better and Gronkowski’s blocking should help spring the rushing game, too. The offense won’t be fully back, but getting Gronkowski in will be a huge boost.
Danny Amendola will still be out, and Shane Vereen won’t return until after the bye week. But New England has Julian Edelman to take Amendola’s place, and Brandon Bolden has taken on Vereen’s role. With Gronkowski, Edelman, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson as the expected starting receivers, the Patriots should be able to push the ball downfield. When Edelman, Amendola and Michael Hoomanawanui are starters, most of Brady’s passes are thrown to the shallow part of the field.
Getting Gronkowski in the game should keep New York’s defense on its toes, too. The Jets defenders may not double-team the tight end to start the game, but if he starts getting some early targets, that will help free up space for the rest of the receivers.
In the past two years, Brady’s completion percentage has dropped almost eight points without Gronkowski in the offense. Brady’s thrown three times as many interceptions in the 11 games without Gronkowski on the field than the 11 with his star tight end.
If Gronkowski is eased back into the offense, Brady’s numbers may not rise astronomically right away, but we should start to see a return to the old Brady. And the Patriots will need that, though if the Patriots were going to pick a game to lose Talib, it would probably be against the Jets. They don’t have a receiver that Talib needs to take away.
But the Jets have proven they’re not a bottom-of-the-barrel team this season. They have three big wins against the Falcons, Buccaneers and Bills, and they kept their Week 2 loss to the Patriots close throughout.
There’s a lot of give and take in football. And through the first six weeks of the season, the defense gave and the offense took. That will have to change without so many key players, and Gronkowski will have a big part in that.
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