FOXBOROUGH — On Sunday, the Patriots finally came face to face with a formidable opponent that can slow down, even derail, their inevitable march to Super Bowl 50 — the Gridiron Grim Reaper known as injuries.
Health is a greater threat to the Patriots than the Denver Broncos or the Cincinnati Bengals. It can be fickle and unforgiving. A team's destiny remains as fragile as the ligaments, bones, and tendons tenuously tied to it. It can be scrambled as easily as the brains inside those helmets. As dominant as the Patriots have been, season-altering injuries are the taboo topic that no one wants to speak of in a sparkling season that is now halfway to 16-0.
Yet, they were the topic du jour after the Patriots' 27-10 Pyrrhic victory over the Washington Redskins at Gillette Stadium.
The ultimate Next Man Up team was down to its last man on the offensive line, using all five available linemen after losing left tackle Sebastian Vollmer in the first half to a head injury. The team also lost dynamic running back Dion Lewis in the third quarter to a dreaded noncontact knee injury, casting a pall over a win that did little to palliate personnel losses that could blur the big picture.
The Patriots are well aware how an injury can undermine a season. The 2008 season changed the moment Bernard Pollard crashed into Tom Brady's knee in the season opener. The same goes for 2009, when Wes Welker's knee gave way in the season finale in Houston. Patriots fans hyperventilate any time Rob Gronkowski tumbles to the turf after watching Super Bowl dreams in 2011, 2012, and 2013 go down with Gronk.
Older Boston sports fans will always wonder what would have happened to the 1973 Celtics if John Havlicek hadn't injured his shoulder in the Eastern Conference finals. Perhaps, the 1975 Red Sox win the greatest World Series ever played if Jim Rice isn't felled with a broken hand by a Vern Ruhle pitch.
Even for a one-game-at-time group, wins lose some of the joy when you lose players essential to the ultimate goal.
"Yeah, we work hard for these wins. It definitely does because [Dion] is a factor for this team," said Julian Edelman. "It's part of the game, but it [stinks]. It kind of does . . . Every team has to deal with something like that. You hope and pray it doesn't happen."
There is no team and coach better at applying the tourniquet than the Patriots and Bill Belichick.
Even a depleted Patriots team was too much for the road-winless Redskins. But this season is about a lot more than beating Washington.
The Patriots' spate of injuries merely spared Washington further embarrassment. Washington kept its streak of not allowing a 300-yard passer alive, barely. TB12 finished 26 of 39 for 299 yards and two touchdowns. He also threw an uncharacteristic red zone interception to Keenan Robinson in the first quarter.
Of course, if the Patriots hadn't had to activate the governor on their offense in the second half because of injuries they would have obliterated that streak the same way they did the Redskins' feeble 30th-ranked run defense.
Led by LeGarrette Blount (29 carries for 129 yards and a score), the play-it-safe Patriots ran for 161 yards on 37 carries.
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount talks after win
Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount talks about his running game and the offensive line after the Patriots win over the Redskins.
Second-year right tackle Cameron Fleming was called upon to play left tackle. Fleming, who started the season on the practice squad, had never played the position in any football game.
Center Bryan Stork, playing for the first time this season after starting the season on short-term injured reserve, was forced to play right tackle.
The Patriots started the game without tackle Marcus Cannon, who missed his third straight game with a toe injury, and guard Tre' Jackson. Starting left tackle Nate Solder is out for the year (torn biceps).
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels's call sheet was limited in the second half, trying to protect his quarterback, his patch-work offensive line, and the dream of a second straight Super Bowl crown.
"I don't think limited, I just think we played smart," said wide receiver Brandon LaFell. "We played to what we had available to us. We didn't try to get fancy. We just stuck to the basics. We got guys that are playing new positions, so, hey, just go out there and do your job, man. Let's not get fancy and lose this game."
The 10 points the Patriots scored in the second half were a bonus. The most important number was zero — the number of times Washington sacked Brady.
"It means a lot that we were able to keep Tom clean because that's the name of the game," said Fleming.
Before the injuries, the Patriots' primary challenge in this game was succumbing to boredom.
Their opponent wasn't the erstwhile Boston Braves, it was themselves. Could they maintain their lofty execution even when it wasn't required to win?
There was a better chance of Washington owner Daniel Snyder changing his team's divisive nickname midgame than Washington ending the Patriots' undefeated days.
The Patriots would have benefited more from holding an intrasquad scrimmage than toying with Jay Gruden's club. And they would have been less susceptible to injuries in such a controlled environment.
The Patriots did what they wanted, including recovering a surprise onside kick after scoring on the first drive of the game.
When Stephen Gostkowski made it 17-0 with a 21-yard field goal with 7:56 left in the first half, the Patriots had amassed 246 yards to Washington's 14. The Patriots had more first downs (15) than Washington had yards.
It could have been worse if Edelman hadn't fumbled after the onside kick, and Brady hadn't thrown his pick.
The Redskins were never a threat.
But injuries always are a threat.
The Patriots received a painful reminder of that on Sunday.
Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell talks about running game
Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell talks about his running game against the Redskins and the injury to Dion Lewis.