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The Boston Globe

Sports

Christopher L. Gasper

Rob Gronkowski’s loss leaves giant hole

Rob Gronkowski’s season ended when the big tight end broke his forearm on this play.

BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

Rob Gronkowski’s season ended when the big tight end broke his forearm on this play.

Rob Gronkowski underwent surgery Monday to repair the left forearm he broke again in the Patriots’ 41-28 playoff victory Sunday over the Texans. Apparently, cutting Gronkowski out of the Patriots’ offense qualifies as a minor operation by comparison.

Patriots followers seem generally unfazed and unconcerned by the loss of Gronk.

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There was more consternation and fretting when Kendrick Perkins went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Game 6 of the 2010 NBA Finals than there is over the loss of the Patriots’ force of nature tight end heading into Sunday’s AFC Championship game replay with the Baltimore Ravens.

I don’t get it. When did Gronkowski’s contributions become so fungible? When did losing the preeminent red zone threat in all of football and one of the best blocking tight ends in the game become no big deal? Strange times we live in on the Boston sports scene; Avery Bradley is sine qua non to the Celtics’ success and Gronkowski is a negligible part of the Patriots’.

It’s one thing for the Patriots to act like losing Gronkowski is no more important to the Super Bowl quest than losing a shirt-button. In pro football, once you’re not able to play you might as well walk around with a toe tag because your head coach pronounces you dead to the team.

But the rest of us can exist outside Fort Foxborough’s alternate reality. Gronkowski’s loss is like one of his titanic spikes — it leaves a big hole to fill. At least in Super Bowl XLVI, the Patriots had a gimpy Gronk as a decoy. They won’t even have that Sunday.

As a quick aside, let’s put to rest the notion that Gronk’s re-injury is comparable to what happened with Robert Griffin III in Washington, which was coaching malpractice by Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.

In the case of Gronkowski, there was nothing coach Bill Belichick could have done to prevent this injury, unless he was a faith healer. Gronkowski had an extra week off. But broken bones need more than byes.

The Patriots still can defeat Right Reverend Ray Lewis and the Ravens Sunday at Gillette Stadium without Gronkowski. But it certainly would be easier with a player who averaged a touchdown per game this season (11) and has caught more touchdowns over the last three years than any player in the league (38).

The games between the Patriots and the Ravens usually come down to a play or two, instances where it’s not about scheme or calls, but skill. Gronkowski is that most vital of NFL entities, a player who can make plays that defy coverage and nature. The only players in NFL history to catch more TD passes in their first three seasons are a couple of guys named Moss and Rice.

“Certainly, Rob is a unique player and he has some skills that allow you to do special things with him. I don’t think it’s really fair to say you just plug somebody in and off you go,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “But I thought Michael [Hoomanawanui] did a great job with the things we asked him to do [Sunday]. He certainly did a good job in protection and in the running game and really played a valuable role for us there.”

The counterargument is that the Patriots’ offensive numbers didn’t change appreciably without Gronkowski in the lineup. No Gronk, no problem, the statistics say.

In the 11 regular-season games the Gronkster suited up, the Patriots averaged 35 points per game and 432.9 yards of total offense. Without Gronkowski, Tom Brady and the Patriots rolled up 34.2 points per game and 416.8 yards per game.

The numbers are fibbing because the playoffs are different than the regular season.

When the Patriots were living large without their big-time tight end it was predominantly against non-playoff teams. They hung 49 on the Jets with help of Mark Sanchez’s bumbling fumble and a fluky fumbled kickoff. However, they also struggled in 23-point performances against the Dolphins and Jaguars.

As Belichick said after the win over the Texans, the games just get tougher, bigger, and harder in the playoffs. The soft-toss portion of the schedule is over. It’s nothing but Justin Verlander fastballs the rest of the way with the AFC title game and, hopefully, a return trip to the Super Bowl.

The Patriots didn’t need Gronkowski against the Texans. They scored 42 points on them the first time and dropped 41 on Sunday, after Gronkowski reinjured his forearm on the second offensive series. But the Texans still have the Super Bowl-contender training wheels on.

The Ravens are riding in on Harleys.

It’s a testament to Brady and the Patriots’ coaching staff that New England still had the league’s most productive offense despite not having the tight end tandem they wanted it to revolve around completely healthy for more than the season opener.

The good news is that Aaron Hernandez, who has been hobbled by an ankle injury since the second game of the season, appears to be as healthy as he has been all year. The sharp cut he had on his 40-yard reception Sunday was vintage Hernandez.

Much of the burden of replacing Gronk’s production will fall to his fellow tight end.

“It’s hard to replace a player like him because he’s a freak of nature,” said Hernandez, after Sunday’s win. “Everyone has to step up, and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling.”

This is also why the Patriots went out in the offseason and signed wide receiver Brandon Lloyd. Sunday is a great opportunity for Lloyd to earn his Patriots wings, once and for all.

The Patriots have to move on without Gronk.

But like his broken forearm, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to hurt.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

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