This Tom Brady-playing-without-his-best-targets thing is going to be put to its biggest test yet.
Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was carted off late in their 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos, after taking a hard shot to his right knee. He was immediately declared out, though that could have simply been a function of the timing.
Gronkowski was hit on the knee by safety Darian Stewart, and immediately went down clutching his leg in pain.
The Patriots were already playing without wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis and left tackle Nate Solder (not to mention linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins), and while they have all had their moments, none come close to Gronkowski’s level of importance.
Few players do.
When Gronkowski caught his 63rd career touchdown in the first half, it moved him into sole possession of third on the all-time tight end touchdown list, trailing only Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates. That means he has more touchdowns than every tight end in the Hall of Fame.
And as impressive as his accomplishments have been, he’s also dealt with plenty of injuries, which made many teams wary of him prior to the the draft.
But if this one is serious, it’s going to take every bit of magic Brady can muster to keep this offense afloat, despite the fact they’re 10-1.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. As poignant as it was watching Peyton Manning not play tonight against Brady, it was hard to watch him limp through the pre-game in his cast and walking boot and not think about NBA star Kobe Bryant, who retired Sunday.
Bryant finally figured out his body wasn’t allowing him to play to his previous level, something everyone else figured out some time ago.
And while Manning wants to come back and play again, watching him struggle through injuries (with the exception of his rested and healthy post-bye week when he looked like Young Peyton) makes you wonder if there’s anything that could get him back to the kind of level we’d recognize, or that he’d be pleased with watching.
And the fact that replacement Brock Osweiler played as well as he has is going to complicate the process, which was already going to be awkward.
The rally to take the lead late was good work for any quarterback, but for a young player without much experience to do so against that opponent likely cemented Osweiler’s status for the near future.
2. Broncos running back C.J. Anderson helped make it a game in the fourth quarter, with a 15-yard touchdown run that showed his burst.
Then he made himself a legend in Denver, winning it in overtime with a 48-yard touchdown run.
He finished with 15 carries for 113 yards and two scores, creating one of the more memorable moments in a series full of them.
He’s actually played very well since the bye, averaging 5.8 yards per carry in the first four games after the week off, after not averaging higher than 3.9 per carry in any game before the break, and just 2.7 per carry over the first six games.
A toe injury slowed him, but seeing him in the snow just brought into relief how much different he looked.
3. The offensive stars shine brightest, but the Broncos won with a defense that proved it can stop any quarterback.
The pressure Von Miller put on Brady late in the game was such that no quarterback could make consistent plays, and the job his teammates did throughout kept Brady on his toes when he had his best target.
4. Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas can afford a fresh pair for every play. But he made sure to change gloves in the second half, after a rash of drops.
Thomas had a rough night all the way around, only partly due to the coverage the Patriots were throwing his way. But there have been a few moments lately when Emmanuel Sanders looked like the more reliable target, and the more important part of their offense.
Granted, Sanders is able to get open in part because of the attention Thomas draws, and it’s not as if Thomas has been poor all year. He entered the game with 71 receptions for 875 yards. But his touchdown numbers are way off (two so far this season after 35 the previous three seasons), and it can’t all be the gloves.
5. It’s always kind of amusing watching Brady air out teammates when they miss a block or drop a pass, as he did with his offensive line in the third quarter.
When he does it, it’s never dubbed ego, or selfishness. No letters to the editor are written by pearl-clutching Tennessee mommas. Instead, it’s “fiery leadership,” or “attention to detail.”
He gets the benefit of the doubt because he’s won and done it for a long time. Even though sometimes he has a hard time finding people to high-five.