Tom Brady and the New England Patriots punched their seventh ticket to the AFC title game since 2001 on Sunday, after defeating the Houston Texans 41-28. If Brady and the Patriots are going to return to the Super Bowl for the sixth time since 2001, they'll do so without Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski, who re-injured his broken forearm on Sunday.
Needless to say, it's a blow to New England's Super Bowl chances. In just 11 games this season, Gronkowski caught 55 passes for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns, and once again, was an excellent blocker.
But just how big of a blow is it?
When the Patriots lost to the Ravens in Week 3, Gronkowski largely was a non-factor in the passing game. Brady targeted Gronkowski just three times, with Gronkowski recording two receptions for 21 yards. Julian Edelman, Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker all had at least double the targets -- and double the receptions. It's certainly worth noting that the Patriots were without Aaron Hernandez in Week 3.
In last year's AFC title game, Gronkowski led the Patriots with 87 receiving yards. Gronkowski caught five passes and was targeted by Brady eight times. As Patriots fans painfully remember, Gronkowski was injured in the waning moments of the third quarter, when noted Patriots-killer Bernard Pollard injured Gronkowski's ankle, rendering the tight end ineffective for Super Bowl XLVI.
Without an effective Gronkowski in last year's Super Bowl, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker combined for 15 catches on 22 targets -- more than half of Brady's 41 pass attempts.
Though the Patriots do have plenty of weapons to replace Gronkowski with, none bring as much to the table as Gronkowski, who is not only an excellent pass catcher, but an excellent run blocker, too.
Without Gronkowski, the Patriots will use Hernandez and Daniel Fells or Michael Hoomanawanui in two tight end sets. Fells was inactive during New England's win over Houston, but with Gronkowski out, Fells will almost certainly be active.
In New England's first game without Gronkowski this year, most famous for Mark Sanchez' butt fumble, Fells played 55 of New England's 68 offensive plays. Josh McDaniels lobbied for Bill Belichick to sign Fells last offseason, and now, McDaniels will get to utilize New England's backup tight end.
If Fells does play a sizable portion of the AFC title game, he'll almost certainly be primarily used as a blocker. Fells recorded just four receptions for 85 yards this season. In New England's four losses this season, the Patriots failed to rush for over 100 yards. In their Week 3 loss to the Ravens, the Patriots were held to just 77 rushing yards on 34 carries -- a paltry 2.3 yards per carry average.
Replacing Gronkowski's production through the passing game isn't easy, but the Patriots played without Gronkowski for five games earlier this season, and averaged 34 points per game with 417 offensive yards per game without him.
With Gronkowski, and Woodhead, out during New England's win over Houston, Brady targeted Welker 13 times, and targeted Hernandez and Lloyd nine times each. If history is any indication, Welker, Hernandez and Lloyd will receive plenty of targets come Sunday. In the Week 3 loss, Welker caught eight passes for 142 yards, while Lloyd caught nine for 108 -- but neither wideout recorded a touchdown reception.
Though New England would much rather have Gronkowski healthy on Sunday, the Patriots offense remains one of the top offenses in the NFL -- even without Gronk. Fells and Hoomanawanui are hardly household names, and they'll never become household names, but they'll be the pair tasked with replacing Gronkowski, at least through the blocking game.
Hernandez, Lloyd, Welker, Vereen, Ridley and Brady's old friend, Deion Branch, are tasked with replacing Gronkowski's offensive output -- and they've already proven to be capable of just that.