The Patriots (9-2) are bigger than any one man.
So while the news of All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski being lost for the season to a back injury sent appropriate ripples of concern through Patriots Nation, the reality is that Tom Brady and Co. will look to plow forward toward another potential Super Bowl run. The foundation for such has been set already, action that took place both with and without No. 87.
Game 1 A.G. - after Gronkowksi - comes Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium as Bill Belichick's squad hosts the once again disappointing Rams (4-7).
L.A. is an interesting opponent arriving in Foxborough to meet a Patriots team that so often rallies in the face of doubt and has a history of being galvanized by would-be stumbling blocks.
The Rams will have No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff making his third career start. Todd Gurley was supposed to be one of the true rising stars in the game at running back but is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry on his 200 attempts. And defensive tackle Aaron Donald may very well be the best defensive player in the game even if no one notices as he plays outside the annual playoff picture with the Rams.
Oh, and let's not forget punter Johnny Hekker, who Belichick called a "weapon" this week among his extensive praise for the superstar specialist.
The Patriots hit December in good position record-wise, but the team's health is a growing concern. Gronkowski is atop that list, but Brady's own knee and the status of other key weapons like Martellus Bennett (ankle/shoulder) are worth keeping an eye on.
Nothing quiets critics and quells concerns quicker than victory. After two tough wins on the road against the 49ers and Jets, the Patriots return to the comforts of home, so often a recipe for success for the team.
A win over Jeff Fisher's also-ran Rams on Sunday won't bring Gronkowksi back, but it will help turn the tide of doubt for a team that still has a lot going for it and a lot to play for.
"It doesn't stop for anybody," Brady said in his Friday press conference, though he just as easily could have been addressing his teammates. "The games keep being played and they keep going. I've learned that lesson a few times in my career. When you're out there, you've got to appreciate it, and when you're not, you do everything you can to get back. For the guys that have the opportunity to go out there and play this week, they're fortunate to go play the game. You do it with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm because you don't know what next week is going to bring. We have to go out there and play and just have a great game. It's a good time of year to start playing our best football."
PFW's Andy Hart shares his players to watch during the Patriots Week 13 game against the Los Angeles Rams.
With that in mind, here are a few potential keys as the Patriots host the Rams Sunday at 1 p.m.
Brady's knee - Brady missed practice on Wednesday before being limited the final two days of workouts. He's officially questionable for Sunday. While it would be stunning to see TB12 miss time, there is no question that he was hobbled by the right knee injury last Sunday in New York. It certainly affected his accuracy, even as he pulled out the victory in the end. Now, as he looks to set an NFL record with his 201st career win, his health will continue to be a focal point. That's even more true without Gronkowski as there will be ongoing pressure for Brady to do more, to spread the load and utilize all his weapons in an more efficient way. Brady's numbers have historically taken a hit without Gronkowski. But, Brady also often rises to the occasion when he and his team are doubted or in some sort of supposed turmoil. Tune in to see if he can conjure up another emotional, classic Brady day as he tries to stamp himself as the winningest quarterback in football history.
The Donald- Brady can only do his work if he has time to do it. Donald is a disruptive force in the middle of the Rams defense whose production runs deeper than his team-best six sacks. Defensive end Robert Quinn missed practice all week with a concussion, so New England may not have to face his potentially damaging edge presence. But Donald is a major challenge for New England's young interior offensive line of center David Andrews and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Brady has been widely praised for his improved mobility this season and that has been very much needed. But that mobility has taken a hit with his knee problems of late. Keeping Donald away from Brady and giving the legend time to find his weapons is priority No. 1.
In the running - As New England looks to spread out the load without Gronkowski, continuing to keep the LeGarrette Blount-led ground game rolling would be helpful. The Rams allow opponents to average 4.3 yards per carry on the ground with the league's No. 20 rush defense. There is more speed than stoutness on the Rams front. So, this could be a chance for the New England line to continue to prove itself as a run-blocking unit and for Blount to have some fun running in front of the home crowd. Dion Lewis should also continue to grow his role in the offense in his third game back from PUP. He and fellow passing back James White are two of the many candidates to continue to help diversify the offense in the post-Gronk timeframe. Opponents have averaged 26 attempts against the Rams and scored eight rushing touchdowns. Blount and the Patriots should look to add to those numbers.
Passing the test - Goff is inexperienced but, according to Belichick, clearly talented. The Patriots pass defense remains very much a work in progress heading into a battle with young supposed franchise passer. Malcolm Butler is coming off a bit of a struggle last week against Brandon Marshall, Quincy Enunwa and the Jets. He could be challenged by Rams veteran leading receiver Kenny Britt. Chris Long's strip sack was great to end the Jets hopes on Sunday, but the pass rush needs to strive for more impactful consistency. Taking care of business against a rookie quarterback coming to your house may not prove anything for the New England pass defense, but failure to do so would certainly be a significant concern. Goff, on the other hand, is looking to take a step forward at this very early stage of his career and doing so against a "Belichick defense" on the road would be a nice feather in the young passer's cap.
Double-stuff - If the first key for the offense is to protect Brady, then the defense's first plan of attack is to keep Gurley from finding room to work. The second-year back remains a major concern, at least as far as Belichick sees it based more on talent than his 2016 production. But he's found little success on the ground. He's averaged 4 yards or better in a game just twice this year and hasn't hit for more than 85 yards in any one game. But L.A. will continue to try to run, evidenced by Gurley's 200 attempts and him topping 20 carries in two of the last three games. New England's run defense has been up and down, though the group held Matt Forte in check last Sunday. The group may continue to have Alan Branch available as he appeals his NFL suspension, which is a nice boost. Dont'a Hightower has stayed healthy and is in the middle of everything the run defense does each week. Branch, Malcolm Brown, Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and the rest will open the day looking to shut down Gurley. The rest of the success on defense will build from there.
Prediction - Injuries were a non-factor for the most part early in the season but suddenly have hit pretty hard in New England. Fighting through injuries is key to NFL success. The Patriots have been able to do that over the years, certainly in the regular season. Gronkowski won't be replaced by any means, but the offense still has plenty of weapons for Brady to turn to in order to move the ball and put up points. The Rams are coming off a blistering at the hands of Drew Brees and the Saints. There is no reason, even with Brady banged up and playing without Gronkowski, that New England can't control this game. If the Rams can't run or hit big plays - the latter taking a hit with L.A. wide receiver Tavon Austin questionable with a chest injury - they will have a hard time keeping up on the road. New England should be able to run the ball to open up the play-action passing. That will help Brady get comfortable early, which hasn't been the case the last couple weeks on the road. This has the feel of a classic Brady game spreading the ball around to a bunch of different receivers who each make key contributions. Defensively if the Rams can't run it's hard to imagine Goff pulling off the big road upset even going against a suspect Patriots pass defense. More likely, New England builds on last week's takeaways and begins a positive turnover streak to help pull away from the young passer. All told, home emotion helps the Patriots to the30-13 win to calm the masses and continue to pile up the Ws.
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