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Rob Gronkowski’s injury is another brutal blow

Tight end Scott Chandler (five catches) was targeted 11 times Sunday night, a sign of how decimated the Patriots offense is because of injuries.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/Globe Staff

DENVER — Chandler Jones made it clear he wanted nothing to do with talking about the Patriots' 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos.

"I'm only answering questions about the Eagles," Jones said of the Patriots' next opponent.

But surely, you must feel for Rob Gronkowski, one of your best friends on the team?

"Chip Kelly is a great coach . . . " Jones said before trailing off. "Got the message?"

Yes, loud and clear. The Patriots didn't just suffer their first loss of the season on Sunday night in Denver following 10 straight wins. They got punched in the gut.

Gronkowski was carted off the field after injuring his right knee with 2:53 left in the fourth quarter, but a league source said late Sunday night the injury is not believed to be serious. The Patriots may have avoided a potential disaster on this one.


But this was still a devastating loss that could ultimately cost the Patriots a shot at back-to-back Super Bowl titles, thanks to Gronkowski's untimely injury.

As Gronkowski leaped for a pass, Broncos safety Darian Stewart hit Gronkowski in the right knee, sending the Patriots' hulking tight end sprawling to the turf in obvious agony. The injury was to the same knee Gronkowski hurt in December 2013, when he tore his ACL and MCL on a similar low hit from then-Browns safety T.J. Ward (who is now on the Broncos).

"We'll see," a sullen Tom Brady said after the loss. "All our fingers are crossed."

The Patriots' postgame locker room felt like a funeral, and Sunday's loss, which ended any hopes of a perfect season, was likely only a small part of it.

Gronkowski becomes the fourth major offensive weapon to suffer an injury in as many weeks. The Patriots have lost Dion Lewis to a torn ACL, Julian Edelman to a broken foot that will keep him out until the playoffs, Danny Amendola to a mild knee injury, and now Gronkowski to a knee injury.


"It's hard to see your friends get taken down like that," Brady said. "He's the best tight end in football. It's just so hard to see these guys get hurt like this. I always have a lot of respect for players who play this game because you risk a lot to play. I think a lot of times that gets overlooked."

Gronkowski was in the locker room after the game, gingerly dressing himself and slowly walking out to the team bus without speaking to reporters. He spoke momentarily with tight ends coach Brian Daboll about his knee, then received a few hugs from friends in the tunnel before heading onto the bus.

The Patriots thrive on the team concept and the "next man up" mentality, but their injury list is getting ridiculous. They also lost star linebacker Dont'a Hightower to a knee injury on Sunday night — the severity of which is also unknown — and their run defense fell apart without Hightower in the game, allowing the Broncos to scamper for two backbreaking touchdowns in the fourth quarter and overtime.

The irony of Gronkowski's injury is the Patriots were trying to play it safe on Sunday with their injuries. Bill Belichick knows how perilously thin the team is right now, and left a few key players at home that probably could have played if they had to. Jamie Collins has now missed four games with a mysterious illness, they want Amendola to get completely healthy before returning from his knee sprain, and tight end Mike Williams tweaked his knee on a kickoff return last week, but the Patriots kept him back in Foxborough as a precaution.


Even with Gronkowski, the Patriots' offense had a rough night on Sunday, although the Broncos' No. 1-ranked defense certainly deserves a lot of credit. The Patriots gained just 301 total yards, rushed for just 39 yards on 16 carries, went 2 for 13 on third down, and lost the time of possession battle by more than 10 minutes. They're just not the same, dynamic offense that scored 40 points per game early in the season when Keshawn Martin, Scott Chandler, and James White are playing for Edelman, Gronkowski, and Lewis.

Chandler, signed from Buffalo last offseason to be a big red zone threat, has been disappointing this year. While he did catch his third touchdown on Sunday night, he doesn't fight for the ball well, and caught only five of 11 passes thrown his way Sunday for 58 yards.

Chandler was momentarily taken out of the game in the first half when he dropped two passes in a row, and was replaced by rookie Asante Cleveland, just called up from the practice squad last week. But the Patriots just don't have enough on offense right now to be able to bench Chandler.

"We're going to need to rely on him quite a bit," Brady said of Chandler. "One way or another he's going to have to be a major contributor for our team. And it was good to see him do that."


The Patriots were able to win the last few weeks without Edelman and Lewis, and should have beaten the Broncos if not for a complete meltdown on both sides of the football in the fourth quarter. But Gronk's injury might be the tipping point, even if he's only out for a few weeks.

Even if he comes back later this season, who's to say he's going to be sharp and running at full speed? Same with Edelman, who will be coming back from a broken bone in his foot. The Patriots can't just snap their fingers and expect to score 40 points again if and when those guys return.

Injuries are a part of football. Ask the Ravens and the Cowboys how badly injuries have affected their seasons.

The Patriots are still 10-1 and the No. 1 seed in the AFC. But the only goal this season is to win a Super Bowl, and they might not have the horses on offense anymore to get it done.

Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.