After facing a long offseason riddled with infections and setbacks, the road for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski may be another long one before we see him again in 2014.

As it was, the 24-year-old Gronkowski missed the first six games of this season while recovering from offseason back and forearm surgeries.  He faced critics who had harsh words for the young player who was seemingly being ultra-cautious in trying to make sure his body was ready to handle the rigors of a violent game that even someone like Tom Brady has fallen victim to.  He took his time, avoiding the PUP list and participating in practice each week to get his body strong enough so he could hopefully avoid exactly what happened to him on Sunday afternoon against Cleveland.

However, with 8:36 to go in the third quarter, he would be four seconds away seeing his football life dealt yet another blow.  Before the snap Gronkowski lined up left, just off of left tackle Nate Solder.  With Browns linebacker D’Quell Jackson lined up over him, Brady immediately recognized the alignment calling out Jackson’s number as the “Mike” on the play, and after the snap took he off down field.  He immediately slipped past Jackson who had no chance of keeping up with him, getting behind him and Brady dropped in a perfect pass over Jackson right into Gronkowski’s hand, which he caught at the 38-yard line.


Seeing Gronkowski down on the turf caused all of Gillette Stadium to become quite quiet on Sunday. (USA TODAY Images)

But safety T.J. Ward was coming hard over the top waiting for him.  As Gronkowski’s right leg passed the 35-yard line, Ward’s shoulder connected to the side of it and bent it awkwardly, flipping Gronkowski up in the air before he came crashing down at the 33-yard line.

As he lay on the ground you could hear him screaming, with the audio from the television broadcast catching the chilling sound of his voice.

Everything stopped.  Fans went from immediate elation to complete silence, with New England’s All-World tight end down on the field and rookie receiver Josh Boyce, who was just a few feet away when Gronkowski had gone down, standing over him.

Immediately trainers headed out to him, and asked Gronkowski what was wrong.

“My mother[expletive] leg,” replied Gronkowski.  He uttered something that couldn’t quite be heard through the television broadcast, and then trainers asked him something else, potentially whether or not he could stand up, which you could hear Gronkowski shout “I can’t!!!!”

Shortly after, his fellow tight end, Matthew Mulligan, stood behind him and helped him onto the cart before he was taken off the field, and every fan in the stadium and watching on television were forced to come to the realization that this football team has likely lost him yet again.

This was confirmed after the game was over following the news that he suffered a torn ACL as a result of the hit, which seemingly means another surgery and another long offseason ahead for him.

It doesn’t seem fair.  So far during his short NFL career he’s had to endure two straight years coming off of an injury, with 2012 being the most difficult after fracturing his forearm twice and enduring multiple surgeries that also included a back surgery.  Should he, in fact, undergo an operation to repair his knee, it would be his sixth since last November.

The forearm surgery led to infections that set him back, and if history is any indication, it’s hard to immediately believe that the one upcoming on his knee will be routine. After what he experienced previously it’s hard not to worry about how his body will respond, as well as the amount of rehab involved to strengthen that knee once it’s repaired.  Once he’s made it past that point, the next question will be how will it effect his quickness, his ability to cut, and whether or not he’ll still possess the speed that has made him such a down field threat in New England’s passing attack.  Seeing what happened to someone like former Patriots tight end Jake Ballard, it’s a scary reminder that there’s no guarantee when it comes to a player coming back from an injury like this whether they’ll be the same player.  Obviously Gronkowski’s a more complete player than Ballard, but there’s no question that there has to be some concern about how this will affect him long-term.

It’s heartbreaking for a guy who worked so hard and tried to do all the right things to make sure he was ready to go in order to help his team overcome all the other injuries they suffered while he was sidelined.  He’s a guy who loves the game and is an impact player not only when he catches the football, but also while blocking and opening things up for the team’s ground game.  He’s also a player who simply makes them better in so many ways, and unfortunately his loss forces this unit to endure yet another direct hit in a season where they really couldn’t afford another blow of this magnitude.

Now they’ll have to once again move on without him as they try and salvage a season where somehow, someway, they’ve clawed their way to a 10-3 record.

“I mean it hurts to see any of those guys go down,” said Brady after the game.  “Certainly with Gronk, and we’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve just got to keep bouncing back.  I always say, ‘no one feels sorry for the Patriots.’  I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots.  But we’re with him, we support him.”

BROWNS SAFETY T.J. WARD CLAIMS HE DIDN’T MEAN TO HURT GRONKOWSKI:

Before the two teams even took the field, Ward said in a video clip on the team’s official website during warm-ups that there, “ain’t nothing better than Foxboro on a Sunday morning,” and they were “going to make a statement today.”

They did, and they made the Patriots work for every play during New England’s last-second win, and little did he know that his name now joins Bernard Pollard on the list of players that fans here will always remember after being the guy who took Gronkowski away for the remainder of the season thanks to his third quarter hit.

It seems Patriots head coach Bill Belichick isn’t a fan of Ward either, after Belichick was spotted on television shortly after Gronkowski went out staring down the man who took him out.

After the game, Ward said that he didn’t meant to hurt Gronk, and due to his size Ward told Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald that he had no other choice other than to go low.

“The decision I made was to make a tackle on a big man, and unfortunately he got hurt,” Ward said. “If I were to hit him up high, there’s a chance I would be fined, so I was just being safe. Gronk is a big dude. He’s not small by any means. It just makes it difficult. My intention is not to hurt anyone. That’s not what this game is about, and that’s not how I play.”

In fact, Ward claims he didn’t even know Gronkowski was hurt until another teammate told him that the tight end was still down.

“I thought I hit him in the quad,” said Ward.  “I didn’t know he was hurt until (defensive back Tashaun) Gipson said he’s down. I didn’t know for at least 10 seconds after that. I seen the ball out so I kinda celebrated because I thought he dropped the ball on impact.”

Belichick said after the game when asked about the play if he had any issue with Ward going low on Gronkowski in that situation, he told CSNNE’s Tom Curran, “I think that’s a question you should take up with the league.”

Clearly he’s not happy about losing Gronkowski, especially with an injury that could ultimately affect his career.  It should be interesting to see if he doesn’t comment on it further this week.  In the meantime expect a roster move at some point as in all likelihood Gronk will be headed to injured reserve following what will likely include a surgery followed by many months of rehab.  Hopefully he can avoid the same infections that set his forearm back during this past offseason.

You can see Belichick’s reaction here:

(H/T Pianta From Reddit)
GOSTKOWSKI SAYS, “I’VE NEVER BEEN THAT JACKED UP” FOLLOWING WIN:

Two weeks ago Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski hit a game-winning overtime field goal during what was the biggest comeback in team history against the Denver Broncos, but on Sunday he admitted that New England’s miraculous win over the Browns eclipsed that one.

Following a perfectly executed onside kick he watched the offense go out and score the winning touchdown which sent him into a frenzy, and he admits he may have gotten a little carried away.

“I’ve never been that jacked up,” Gostkowski told the Worcester Telegram. “I was all over the place. I probably looked like an idiot out there.”

Following the Denver field goal he gave a fist pump, but on Sunday he was jumping all around like a maniac after the victory.  It’s always fun to see a player let loose, and Gostkowski got to have a little fun after being the guy who helped give them that opportunity.

MULLIGAN ADMITS LEAPING WASN’T HIS BEST MOVE:

Patriots tight end Matthew Mulligan admitted that his leaping play following a 15-yard fourth quarter reception to help set up Stephen Gostkowksi’s 50-yard field goal that allowed the Patriots to pull within five points wasn’t a great idea.

However, an interesting comment he told the Boston Herald shed some light on what they had seen on film of the Browns defensive backs, and that’s why he did what he did.

“That’s never a smart move,” Mulligan told Jeff Howe of the Herald. “In my whole career, I’ve never ever done that. I’ve always just plowed guys over, but all week watching film, I thought they would go low, go low, go low, and I decided to go high. (Joe Haden) decided not to take the bait.”

SOME NUMBERS AND FACTS YOU MAY NOT HAVE KNOWN:

- Speaking of that play by Mulligan, that reception happened to give Brady his 6,468 career pass attempt, moving him ahead of Fran Tarkenton for 9th in NFL History.

- As for the above mentioned field goal by Gostkowski, that kick ended up being his 200th career field goal, moving him into second place in franchise history behind Adam Vinatieri, who currently holds the all-time mark with 262.

- Tom Brady finished with over 400-yards passing, but Sunday’s performance was the 58th time he went over 300-yards passing, moving him into 5th place all time for achieving that total. It was also the sixth time he went over 400-yards passing in a game.

- Patriots running back Shane Vereen had one possession where he was targeted or touched the ball on 7 straight plays, which at the time put him over 100 yards receiving for the 1st time in his career. Overall he’s been instrumental since returning from the broken wrist he suffered back in week one, and with Grokowski hurt will likely be an even more important piece of this puzzle in the weeks to come.

- Vereen’s 50 yard reception in the third quarter that set up a touchdown to pull the Patriots within eight at 19-11 tied for the 4th longest reception of 2013, tying Rob Gronkowski’s 50 yard reception last week vs Houston.

- Tom Brady had his worst start of the season after finishing with just one completion in the first quarter on six attempts. The last time he had just one completion in the 1st QTR was against Pittsburgh in 2011.

- The onside kick by the Patriots was the first successful one they’ve run since 1995, which coincidentally enough, came in a 20-13 playoff loss to Bill Belichick’s Browns when Bill Parcells was head coach here in New England. On the play, then Patriots kicker Matt Bahr, had to actually kick it twice after the Patriots were called for “illegal touching” on the first attempt, and Corwin Brown was able to recover it and give Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots offense one more shot to tie the game. Unfortunately a pass from Bledsoe to Michael Timpson with :43 to go in the game on 4th down fell incomplete, and Belichick’s Browns advanced and New England’s season came to an end.

ON TO THIS MORNING’S LINKS:

BOSTON GLOBE:

5 takeaways from the Patriots-Browns game – Zuri Berry – Berry has this week’s “5 Takeaways”, and feels the role to replacing Gronkowski’s production now falls on James Develin and Matthew Mulligan.

Tom Brady picked apart Browns in final drives – The Globe put together a good photo gallery from yesterday’s game, with some terrific action photos all the way down to the game-winning touchdown reception by Danny Amendola.

Losing Rob Gronkowski may be too tough to overcome – Christopher Gasper – Gasper laments Gronkowski’s loss yesterday, and wonders if the Patriots can overcome it.

Browns safety says he had to hit Rob Gronkowski low – Julian Benbow – Benbow has comments from T.J. Ward, who said his decision to hit low came as a result of the league’s decision to fine players for going high.

Shane Vereen was a key player in Patriots’ victory – Michael Whitmer – Whitmer writes that Vereen was forced to reel in his excitement following the team’s onside kick recovery knowing they still needed to go out and execute.

Aqib Talib couldn’t stop Browns receiver Josh Gordon – Michael Whitmer – Whitmer files his notebook, which leads off on the performance of Talib, who did his best to keep up with Gordon but still struggled.

Patriots stun Browns, but lose Rob Gronkowski – Shalise Manza Young – Manza Young files her game story after the team’s dramatic last-second win on Sunday.

BOSTON HERALD:

Ward’s forced hit on Gronkowski impacts Pats’ future – Ron Borges - Borges has an article on Gronk’s injury, with Ward having seen an ominous prediction he made a few months back coming true.

Gostkowski’s onside kick sets up game-winning TD – Jeff Howe – Howe files his notebook this morning, which leads off with a note on Stephen Gostkowski’s onside kick that helped set up their game-winning touchdown.

Injury news is bad news – Dan Ventura – Ventura has comments from several Browns players following Gronkowski’s injury.

Buckley: Great win, but thinking it’s not Pats’ year – Steve Buckley – Buckley writes that after everything that’s happened, that maybe this just isn’t the Patriots’ year.

Vereen in receiving mood - Mark Daniels – Daniels writes that once again on Sunday Shane Vereen flashed his potential.

Teammates torn up by Gronk woe – Dan Ventura – Ventura has reactions from Gronkowsi’s teammates, who are obviously extremely disappointed to know he’s likely lost for the rest of the season.

Historic leg to stand on – Jeff Howe – Howe files his notebook this morning, which leads off with the reactions from Gostkowski and his teammates following the onside kick and subsequent winning touchdown.

ESPN BOSTON:

Tom Brady confident Pats will adapt – Field Yates, Yates has comments from Brady’s weekly appearance on WEEI on Monday morning, where he said everything shifts now and they’ll have to move on now that Gronkowski is gone.

Snaps: Siliga holds his own at nose tackle – Mike Reiss – Reiss has his weekly breakdown of the snap counts on the defensive side of the ball, with Sealver Siliga standing out at the nose tackle position.

Snaps: Vereen as lead RB once again – Mike Reiss – Reiss has snap count numbers for the offense, with Vereen leading all running backs this week.

Improbable is commonplace for Patriots – Mike Reiss – Reiss looks at yet another dramatic win, and writes that improbable wins like this are becoming a theme now for this football team.

WEEI:

What we learned: New Gronkowski injury just might be tipping point for Patriots – Christopher Price  - Price has this week’s “what we learend”, and writes that Aqib Talib has hit a rough patch.

NESN:

Rob Ninkovich, Chris Jones Pressure Jason Campbell and Other Takeaways From Patriots-Browns – Doug Kyed – Kyed writes that it almost felt odd to break the game down to X’s and O’s after such an emotional win.

WORCESTER TELEGRAM:

Rob Gronkowski injury puts damper on win – Rich Garven – Garven writes that yesterday’s miraculous comeback was a tough one thanks to the loss of Gronkowski.

Patriots complete improbable comeback – Jennifer Toland – Toland writes that Stephen Gostkowski admitted that their last second win against Denver was nothing compared to this one.