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The Patriots’ fears were confirmed Monday when an MRI revealed core special teamer Nate Ebner suffered a season-ending knee injury early in Sunday’s win over the Dolphins, according to a league source.

Ebner was placed on injured reserve and it is feared he suffered a torn ACL when he went down at the conclusion of a 14-yard rush on a successful fake punt on the first series of the game.

The news was considerably better for defensive end Trey Flowers, who left the game with a rib injury after colliding with teammate Marquis Flowers during a sack of Matt Moore in the third quarter. Flower’s injury isn’t considered serious and he is week to week.


Ebner’s right leg buckled awkwardly at the end of the play and he fell in a heap along the Patriots’ sideline. The sixth-year veteran was almost immediately ruled out for the remainder of the game. It was similar to how receiver Julian Edelman went down with the same injury in a preseason game at Detroit.

The injury is a big blow to the special teams corps as Ebner, a second-team All-Pro last season when he tied for the league-lead with 19 tackles, was the unit’s leading tackler this season with eight.

The group has been without captain Matthew Slater for six games – including the last two – because of hamstring problems. Slater did practice last week and was on the sideline Sunday, an indication his return could be imminent.

Geneo Grissom, who has played a good deal on special teams, is a strong candidate to get promoted from the practice squad to help fill in for Ebner

Trey Flowers was coy when asked about his injury after the game. Smiling, Flowers said he was taken out because he “needed a rest.” He deftly sidestepped further injury queries though he did say, “yeah, man” when asked if he’d be in Buffalo on Sunday.


Linebacker Kyle Van Noy has a right calf strain, according to a league source, but it’s too early to tell whether he’ll miss any significant time. Van Noy has become a vital member of the defense, his role growing after Dont’a Hightower went down with a pectoral injury.

There was no immediate word on the other Patriots who were injured Sunday: linebackers Marquis Flowers (right knee) and Trevor Reilly (head) and offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle (right ankle).

He has it covered

Cornerback Stephon Gilmore strung together his fourth straight impressive game, blanketing Dolphins receiver DeVante Parker (one catch, 5 yards) most of the afternoon.

Gilmore’s momentum-killing end zone interception on a pass meant for Parker at the end of the first half was one of the key plays of the game. He almost had a game-sealing pick as well, though he let teammate Duron Harmon have it.

“I thought [Stephon] had good leverage on the play,’’ coach Bill Belichick said Monday. “He did a good job when he kind of caught up to Parker on the route looking back for the ball and going up and making a play on it. I thought he did a nice job of playing his responsibilities with good technique, good leverage, and then just turned at the right time when he should have as he moved close to Parker.’’


Gilmore caught a lot of criticism early in the season as he adjusted to the Patriots’ scheme but has clearly turned a corner and become more comfortable over the past month or more.

“Just playing more with these guys and trusting each other and getting better and better every game,’’ said Gilmore.

“That’s what it takes sometimes. It isn’t always going to be great, but if you keep working at it you will come out on top.’’

On being 9-2, a level of success he never experienced in five seasons with the Bills, Gilmore said, “Oh man, we’ve got to keep it going. Feels good, great win. We made more plays than they did. Got to get ready for Buffalo next week. They have a good team.’’

Coach backs Schiano

Belichick’s connection with the Rutgers football program and former head coach Greg Schiano has been well-documented, so it was no surprise Belichick supported Schiano after Tennessee decided not to hire him as their next football coach.

The school and Schiano were close to an agreement on Sunday, but the deal fell apart because of widespread backlash stemming from Schiano’s background as an assistant at Penn State during Jerry Sandusky’s tenure as the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator. Sandusky is serving 30 to 60 years in prison for his conviction on 45 counts of sexual abuse.

Court documents released last year of a deposition in a case related to the Sandusky scandal suggested Schiano might have been aware of Sandusky’s sexual abuse against children, though Schiano says he had no knowledge of what was happening at the time.


Asked if he would vouch for Schiano, Belichick said on a conference, “One hundred percent. Yes, one hundred percent.

“I have great respect and think he’s a great football coach. I’m not really involved in any other situation, but speaking about him as a coach and a person, [I have] the utmost respect and zero reservations. Zero.”

Tomlin looking ahead

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin sounds as if the AFC is a two-team race. During an interview that aired Sunday night, Tomlin said the game against the Partriots Dec. 17 is “going to be fireworks. And it’s probably going to be Part 1.

Tomlin said “Part I” could set up a potential rematch of last season’s AFC Championship game.

“If we’re both doing what we’re supposed to, the second one is really going to be a big game,” Tomlin said, referring to a potential playoff encounter. “Then what happens in the first is going to set up the second one, which is going to determine the location of the second one.”

The Steelers had to travel to Gillette to play the Patriots in the AFC title game last season. The Patriots won, 36-17.

Lee jumped in

Recently acquired Eric Lee jumped right into the fire, playing 25 snaps after a crash course in the Patriots’ defense this week. He finished with four tackles and a sack in his NFL debut. “Eric worked hard this week to try and catch up in a lot of areas. Defensively, there were a number of things,’’ said Belichick. “He really had a lot to do with the sack that Trey Flowers got down in the red area where Flowers was actually unblocked, but Lee powered [Sam] Young on the other side and kind of collapsed the pocket. He was in on a couple of running plays. I thought he gave us some contributions that we needed.’’ . . . A great nugget from NFL Research: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski leads all players in receiving touchdowns since entering the league in 2010 with 74 despite missing 25 games in that span . . . The Patriots don’t play at Gillette Stadium until Christmas Eve against the Bills.


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Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.