New England's thrilling win over Baltimore this past Saturday did not come without a couple of losses to their personnel. The more significant of the two potentially serious causes for concern is the health status of their rookie starting center, Bryan Stork.
The Patriots' offensive line surrendered just two sacks of QB Tom Brady on the night, on consecutive plays midway through the second quarter. The second takedown was the one that felled Stork. It occurred when Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs came flying in from behind Brady and landed on the side of Stork's right leg.
The rookie was in obvious discomfort as he labored to the sideline, where the team's medical staff briefly examined his knee before escorting him to the locker room for further evaluation. Stork did not return to the game and was not seen afterward in the locker room.
With Stork on the shelf, the Patriots were forced to slide right guard Ryan Wendell, the erstwhile starter at center the past couple of seasons, into Stork's role, with second-year man Josh Kline assumed the right guard duties.
The Patriots are not scheduled to practice again until Wednesday, and the extent of Stork's injury remains unclear. If the rookie is unable to suit up this Sunday night against Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game, New England will be forced to trot out yet another patchwork offensive line. The unit was unsettled in the first month of the regular season, and again in late December due to injuries. The most effective o-line the team fielded in 2014 came during their seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season, featuring Stork at center, flanked by co-captain Dan Connolly at left guard, Wendell on the right, and Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer at the left and right tackle spots, respectively.
Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was asked on a media conference call Monday what Stork has brought to the New England o-line in this, his first season with the Patriots.
"Youth," McDaniels chuckled. "He's got a youthful approach to everything. When I say that, it's a compliment. Every day, you see him walk in the building, every day seems like it's a great day, he's got a smile on his face, excited to come to work. He's extremely tough. We knew that when we got him here. He hasn't let us down in that area at all. Works extremely hard at his craft, wants to be good, and cares about trying to do his role help our offense be productive.
"Doesn't ever want to let anyone down. Really a pleasure to have here and coach – his demeanor, his work ethic, his toughness all fit in with that group in that [o-line] room. He's got a lot of veteran players in there to learn from, and he's really tried to soak that in as much as he possibly could. He competed, improved, and when he got his opportunity, he really has made the most of it. I have a ton of respect for how he's gone about his business as a young player. He's been a big part of our success this year."
Reading between the lines: McDaniels didn't use too many past tense verbs in his comments about Stork, and his light-hearted introduction could indicate that Stork's injury is not as serious as it first looked. Unless more information comes to light before Wednesday's practice, however, we may not get an idea about his status until the first injury report of the week is distributed late Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the other injury scare New England dealt with came in the third quarter against Baltimore, when starting cornerback Brandon Browner also left with a right knee issue. Like Stork, the veteran was treated first on the sideline, then in the locker room.
However, unlike Stork, Browner was not only present in the post-game locker room, he spent a great deal of time talking and smiling with reporters – a positive sign that his injury is less of a problem. Browner said as much when asked, proclaimed that he was "feeling great."