FOXBOROUGH — As Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was carted off the Gillette Stadium field Sunday, nothing but uncertainty and a trip to the hospital ahead of him, he waved to the crowd. It was hard to feel like Gronkowski was not waving goodbye to the Patriots’ plans to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Patriots won a football game against the Cleveland Browns in stirring, remarkable, miraculous fashion, sandwiching two Tom Brady touchdown passes in the final 61 seconds between a perfect Stephen Gostkowski onside kick to win, 27-26. But they lost their sui generis tight end, and, maybe, yet another golden opportunity to add the elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy to their mantel.
Yes, the Patriots went 5-1 without Gronk this season, but it’s one thing to beat the Buffalos and Tampa Bays without the big fella. It’s another to take down Denver or Cincinnati.
You know the Gronk injury is bad when Patriots coach Bill Belichick breaks his CIA-code of silence and volunteers that the tight end was taken to the hospital for evaluation and observation. Multiple reports said Gronkowski had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Patriots fans have a new safety to loathe besides Bernard Pollard, who has company in the Hall of Villainy at Patriot Place. T.J. Ward is the man who felled Gronk.
The Patriots have overcome season-ending injuries to stalwarts Vince Wilfork (torn Achilles’), Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral), and Sebastian Vollmer (broken leg) to position themselves at 10-3, but this is different. This is Gronk, an irreplaceable, irresistible offensive force and uncoverable object.
“Yeah, it hurts to see any of those guys go down, certainly, with Gronk,” said quarterback Tom Brady, who orchestrated a comeback for the third straight week, hitting Danny Amendola with a 1-yard touchdown with 31 seconds left.
“We’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve got to just keep bouncing back. I always say no one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob. But I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots. We’re with him. We support him.”
It had been a rather uneventful day for Gronk before his injury. He was held catchless in the first half, as the Patriots were fashionably late to the field yet again, trailing, 6-0.
The first play from scrimmage of the second half was an 11-yard completion to Gronkowski. His second catch will be replayed often.
On first and 10 from the Patriots 45, Brady hit Gronkowski down the left seam with a 21-yard pass.
Gronkowski leaped into the air to catch the ball at the Cleveland 39, his right foot hit the ground, then his left and just as he planted his right foot again at the Browns’ 34 . . . Ward chopped him down like a Douglas fir.
With 8:17 left in the third quarter, the stadium was hushed. Concerned gasps were white noise. A black cloud hovered over a dull gray December game. A black hat was placed on Ward.
“My intention is not to hurt anyone,” said Ward. “That’s not what this game is about, and that’s not how I play.”
Even Cleveland’s players looked dismayed by the injury and a few of them came up to offer well-wishes to Gronkowski.
“That was a lot of respect that Cleveland paid there too,” said Patriots tight end Matthew Mulligan, who aided Gronkowski onto the cart. “When you have a good player like him and with all the struggles that he has gone through already to have something like that, I think it’s catastrophic, and everybody feels it.”
It’s a terrifying thought for Patriots fans, but you wonder if the bruising style that has taken a toll on opponents is exacting a higher toll on the man himself and giving him the NFL lifespan of a fruit fly.
Gronkowski missed the first six games of this season coming back from a twice-fractured forearm and offseason back surgery. An operation to repair his knee would be his sixth since November of 2012.
This is the third straight season he has suffered a major injury. He was limited to decoy duty in Super Bowl XLVI after suffering a severe high-ankle sprain at the hands of Pollard. Last year, he freakishly broke his left forearm against the Indianapolis Colts and then rebroke it eight weeks later in a playoff game against the Houston Texans.
There are few things in sports as maddening and dispiriting as seeing a brilliant player’s career truncated by injuries.
That’s a long-term issue for the Patriots, who signed Gronkowski to a $53 million extension in June of 2012.
In the short term, the Patriots have lost their most dynamic offensive weapon in the passing game.
Gronkowski doesn’t have the same game or body type of an A.J. Green or a Calvin Johnson, but he is that type of difference-making force on the field.
It was obvious the Patriots’ offense and Brady, who passed for 418 yards against Cleveland, 323 in the second half, functioned at a higher level once Gronk got his groove back.
The Patriots overcame the loss of Gronk on Sunday. The drive he was injured on was the last drive of the game in which the Patriots didn’t score. New England scored on its final five drives to overcome deficits of 12-0, 19-3, and 26-14 with 2:39 left.
“I mean, he’s the Gronk. He’s a tough guy to lose,” said Patriots fullback James Develin. “But we did what we had to do, and we fought it out. And I’m proud of us.”
The Miracle of Saint Thomas of San Mateo salvaged a day that could have felt like an utter disaster for the Patriots, allowing them to maintain the inside track for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs.
All was not lost this day, but Gronkowski was.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.