In five simple words, Tom Brady acknowledged what's at stake.
"All our fingers are crossed," the quarterback said after the Patriots lost not only a 30-24 overtime contest in Denver but also saw tight end Rob Gronkowski get carted off the field. Brady's wishful entwinement of his digits is understandable given the significance of a healthy Gronkowski to the Patriots.
As noted earlier this year, the impact of Gronkowski at full strength is transformative. Since his breakout three-touchdown game to open the second half of his rookie season in 2010, the Patriots are 54-10 (.844) while averaging 33.6 points per game when the tight end – now third all-time in touchdown catches by a player at his position – is on the field and at something approximating full strength.
In 27 games in which Gronkowski was either not yet an offensive centerpiece (the first 8 games of his rookie year), unable to play (5 in 2012, 9 in 2013, 1 in 2014) or still getting up to speed (the first four games of 2014, when he was returning to the field after his ACL/MCL surgeries the previous year), the Patriots are a strong but less-than-dominant 19-8 (.704) while averaging 26.0 points per game.
Those winning percentages suggest the difference between an 11-win team that is competing on a level playing field with other playoff-caliber competition and a 13- or 14-win team that is superior to even elite competition. His impact on the offense is staggering, a fact that created considerable anxiety around the Patriots until suggestions emerged (as reported by Ben Volin) that the injury "is not believed to be serious."
Of course, the proof is not in such reports but instead in what Gronkowski looks like when he is back on the field. His mere presence on the field is not the same thing as his presence as a game-changer.
In Super Bowl XLVI, NFL Films captured sideline footage of the Giants suggesting that a high ankle sprain had rendered him a "decoy" in New England's 21-17 loss. In the first four games of 2014, the Patriots were 2-2 while averaging 20 points per game with a half-speed Gronkowski on the field.
In other words, regardless of whether or when Gronkowski returns, the Patriots will not yet be done with the Brady-led exercise in well-wishing.
That being the case, forthcoming injury reports will be monitored closely not just for Gronkowski's status but also to see whether New England is subject to an epidemic of finger cramping.
|2010: With Gronkowski*||8-0||37.4|
|2011 With Gronkowski||13-3||32.1|
|2012 With Gronkowski||8-3||35.1|
|2012 Without Gronkowski||4-1||34.2|
|2013 With Gronkowski||5-2||32.0|
|2013 Without Gronkowski||7-2||24.4|
|2014 "With" Gronkowski**||10-1||34.5|
|2014 "Without" Gronkowski**||2-3||17.8|
|2015 With Gronkowski||10-1||31.5|
|2010-15 With Gronkowski||54-10||34.1|
|2010-15 Without Gronkowski||19-8||26.0|
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.