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Sun., May. 24, 2015 12:00 AM to 10:59 PM EDT
Mon., May. 25, 2015 12:00 AM to 11:59 PM EDT
Tue., May. 26, 2015 12:00 AM to 11:55 AM EDT
For the second year in a row, no less.
Now, for the reality check: they will likely have to get there without Rob Gronkowski.
You were excited, no doubt, when Gronk returned to the game field in the regular season finale against Miami. But even then, you could see he wasn’t himself. He was gun-shy about using that left arm to do anything except extend to catch a pass. He couldn’t block with it, and did his level best to hide the injured limb whenever a defender got too close.
Sunday night against Houston, he still didn’t look right. In pre-game warm-ups, he didn’t appear to have gained much confidence in the surgically repaired arm, which was still heavily wrapped and padded. Yet, his head coach insisted he was given medical clearance.
“He wouldn’t have played if he wasn’t,” Belichick stated. “The doctors handle the medical decisions.”
The excitement many spectators felt in seeing Gronkowski back for the playoffs was short-lived. On just the seventh offensive play, Gronk ran a deep route to the right side up the Patriots sideline. Gronkowski caught the ball while stepping out of bounds and appeared to re-injure the arm as he extended it to brace himself as he tumbled to the ground.
Gronk immediately got up in obvious pain and retreated to the bench, where the team’s medical staff surrounded him for several minutes before taking him to the locker room. CBS Network broadcast cameras later showed him leaving the X-ray facility inside Gillette Stadium. Multiple media reports (the website ProFootballTalk.com was first with it) said Gronk broke the arm again, will need further surgery, and is done for the post-season.
Gronkowski’s teammates seemed to sense that this was the end of the line this season for Gronk.
“That’s huge… It would be a shame,” running back Shane Vereen commented.
“It’s hard to replace a player like him because he’s a freak of nature,” fellow tight end and locker room neighbor Aaron Hernandez lamented. “Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling.”
“Obviously, we’ll be disappointed because we’re a family,” linebacker/co-captain Jerod Mayo remarked. “You now, Gronk is one of those guys that brings a lot of laughter to the meeting rooms, but at the same time, we have guys that can step up and do a good job for us.”
They have and they must next week against Baltimore. The Ravens return to Foxborough, scene of last seasons’ AFC title tilt, and a rematch of this year’s Week 3 nail-biter in Baltimore, which the Ravens won 31-30 on a controversial final field goal.
Coming off an emotional win in Denver on Saturday, the Ravens are clearly hungry to avenge last year’s loss, as evidenced by their post-game comments and some social media remarks that some Ravens players made during New England’s victory Sunday.
“Oh, of course, yeah. I think they always want us,” left guard/co-captain Logan Mankins observed with a chuckle. “They’re a great team. We have tons of respect for them. We’ve played them so many times over the years, we’ve played against Ray [Lewis], [Haloti] Ngata, and [Terrell] Suggs and those guys so many times that we know them, they know us, and it winds up being a slugfest.”
“Last year, I wasn’t even playing in the playoffs. This year, I’m able to make an impact,” noted Vereen, who totaled 124 yards on the ground and through the air, with three touchdowns to his credit.
“Nonetheless, we have Baltimore next week, and that’s where our focus is. It’s always a good game when we play Baltimore. They’re a great team and the AFC Championship is the biggest game of the year.”
It will be the biggest game of the year, to date, for the Patriots. And they’ll have to go about it without one of their best players. They’ve been in this position before. They know how to handle it.
But that doesn’t lessen the pain of losing Gronk…. again.