Why Patriots are still AFC favorite without Rob Gronkowski
After quarterback Tom Brady, the one player the Patriots would least like to lose was just declared out for the rest of the regular season. Rob Gronkowski—PFF’s highest-graded tight end at the moment—is having back surgery that conservative estimates say will sideline him until around the time of the Super Bowl.
Immediately, the question on everybody’s mind becomes, “Do the Patriots still have enough fire power to win the AFC?”
There were times this season that it looked like a forgone conclusion that the Patriots would represent their conference in Super Bowl LI. That was before they lost their most dynamic weapons on defense (Jamie Collins, via a trade to the Browns) and now on offense. Gronk’s loss doesn’t really pose a threat to New England’s quest for a first-round bye, as the Patriots already have a multiple-game lead in that regard, but they don’t want to be traveling on the road as they did a season ago, and they are tied with the 9-2 Raiders for home-field advantage at the moment. They also have the Ravens, Broncos, and Dolphins remaining on their schedule—all teams fighting for their playoff lives.
Let’s assume the Patriots do get through the regular season unscathed, though, and clinch home-field advantage. A Gronk-less New England team may not be the death sentence to opponents it once was back in 2013. There was a concerted effort this offseason to make the receiving corps more multifaceted, and the additions of Chris Hogan, rookie Malcolm Mitchell, and Martellus Bennett have done just that. With QB Jimmy Garappolo at the helm in Weeks 1 and 2, the Patriots’ offense outperformed everyone’s wildest dreams, and those new additions were a big reason why. Bennett was the highest-graded tight end in the league over that span, while Hogan recorded 119 receiving yards on 7-of-9 targets himself.
This was a far cry from the first six weeks of the 2013 season, when Tom Brady was our 12th-highest graded quarterback in the league without Gronkowski, throwing for a passer rating of just 79.5 over that span. Over the past two weeks of the 2016 season, with Gronk playing a grand total of seven snaps, Brady earned the sixth-highest grade among NFL quarterbacks, with a passer rating of 100.5. It won’t be the scorched earth that we saw at times with a fully-healthy roster, yet this is still one of the most talented rosters in the league. The New England Patriots may not be the odds-on favorites anymore with the way the AFC West is playing, but this team should still be the conference favorite to make Super Bowl LI.