Brown: Patriots have knack for overcoming injury adversity

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, left, catches a ball during practice Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, in Minneapolis. The Patriots are scheduled to face the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game Sunday, Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Mark Humphrey

  • Rob Gronkowski answers questions during a news conference Thursday in Minneapolis. Although Gronkowski will play in Sunday’s Super Bowl, the Patriots have proven capable of winning without him. AP

  • FILE - In this Saturday, Jan. 13, 2018, file photo, New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, right, catches a pass in front of Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard (59) during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles are set to meet in Super Bowl 52 on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File) Charles Krupa

  • New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski answers questions during a news conference Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018, in Minneapolis. The Patriots are scheduled to face the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL Super Bowl 52 football game Sunday, Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Mark Humphrey

  • New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of the AFC championship NFL football game, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Tom Brady throws during practice Thursday in Minneapolis. The Patriots have gone 13-6 without their star quarterback since he took the starting job in 2001. AP

For the Monitor
Saturday, February 03, 2018

In the midst of a staggering run of injuries this season, the Patriots reached their eighth Super Bowl in 18 years by once again proving themselves adaptable and deep.

There tends to be a perception that the Patriots, like most teams, are incapable of success without one or two key players. “Player X is a person New England cannot afford to lose,” we’re told, and yet, the Pats continue to thrive without Player X. When the Patriots face the Eagles Sunday in Super Bowl LII, consider that they got here without their top receiver from a year ago (Julian Edelman) and the best player in their defensive front seven (Dont’a Hightower).

Just when it seems like everything could fall apart without a dependable player’s contributions, the Patriots show us they have a way. Is there a player the Patriots really can’t do without? You might be surprised how effective the team has been without its best personnel.

Tom Brady

Everyone can agree that Tom Brady is the one player the Patriots absolutely cannot lose.

But keep in mind, they are 13-6 (.684 winning percentage) without him, including three wins during his four-game suspension in 2016. That includes a winning start from third-string rookie Jacoby Brissett, who also played two quarters in another victory. If Brissett hadn’t injured his throwing hand during a 27-0 win over the Texans, New England might have been more competitive in a 16-0 loss to Buffalo the next week (Brissett went on injured reserve after the Bills game).

Yes, the Pats missed the playoffs without Brady in 2008, but they went 10-5 in Matt Cassel’s starts and remain the only team to miss the playoffs with 11 wins since the NFL expanded to a 12-team playoff format in 1990 (the 1985 Denver Broncos are the only other 11-win team to miss the postseason).

Rob Gronkowski

Gronkowski, obviously, is the one player the Patriots cannot lose apart from Brady.

Except last season, the Patriots went 10-0 without Gronk, including an 8-0 run through Super Bowl LI. That also includes a 2-0 start to the 2016 season when the Pats had neither Brady nor their All-Pro tight end. Yes, the Pats played a lousy game against Miami this year with Gronkowski suspended, but they also rallied from a 14-3 deficit against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship, scoring 21 points after he exited with a concussion late in the first half.

Prior to Gronk’s season-ending injury last year, Brady had a middling 82.4 passer rating in 19 career games without Gronk, according to USA Today’s Steven Ruiz. But the Patriots retooled their offense and Brady had a 102.1 passer rating without Gronk in the final eight games of 2016 (including the postseason).

Dont’a Hightower

A Greek chorus of stunned opposition rose up when Bill Belichick traded Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins at various points in 2016. These trades absolutely meant the Patriots’ defense could not lose Hightower, a versatile and exceptional linebacker. New England bolstered that theory by signing Hightower to a four-year $45 million deal in the offseason. Then he got hurt in Week 7, and the Pats have been just fine since.

New England is 12-1 without Hightower this year (including playoffs) and 15-1 without him over the last two seasons, averaging 15.3 points allowed in those games. If that 16-game stretch were an actual season, it would be the NFL’s best points allowed total since Seattle gave up 14.4 per game in 2013. Since the Collins trade, the Pats are 13-1, allowing 15.7 points per game with no Jones, Collins or Hightower on the field.

Julian Edelman

Having weathered the loss of Gronk last season, the Patriots were again forced to deal with the loss of a weapon they absolutely could not lose when Edelman tore his ACL in the preseason. Although the Pats began the year 2-2, the offense scored 129 points in that span (an average of 32.3 per game). Brady might’ve grumbled about leaving points on the field, but it was immediately clear the offense was fully functional.

Of course, they’re 15-3 without Edelman this season, passing their biggest test with that Gronk-less comeback against Jacksonville.

There are a lot of parallels between the 2016 Gronkowski injury and the 2017 Edelman injury. Both forced the team to rework its offense and neither player was available for the postseason. In each case, the loss of a high-target receiver raised questions about Brady’s ability to play without a longtime staple of the offense. According to Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports, Brady had a 106.9 passer rating with Edelman on the field from 2014-2016. His rating dropped to 86.4 without Edelman. This year, Brady has a 103.5 passer rating through 18 Edelman-free games, leads the league in passing yardage and is the odds-on favorite to win his third MVP award.

Clearly, the lesson is that the Patriots have been consistently deep and consistently adaptable. While they’d prefer to have all these guys available all of the time, the reality is that players always get hurt. Is there anyone the Patriots really can’t lose? Maybe Devin McCourty. But history tells us they’d probably find a way to deal with it.

(Dave Brown is a freelance correspondent who covers the Patriots for the Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter @ThatDaveBrown.)