In the first team meeting after the injury of a certain star player, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick did not spend much time talking about the player who had been lost for the season, delivering a message that one player who was there summed up as, "Basically, suck it up." In his news conferences, Belichick said it was not his job to worry about what might have been -- even if, in that case, what might have been was another trip to the Super Bowl. His job, he said, was to play the hand he was dealt.
That was five years ago, at the start of the 2008 season, when the New England Patriots lost Tom Brady to a knee injury that ultimately did doom their Super Bowl chances, but did not entirely torpedo their season. Belichick's approach -- nearly aloof in its next-man-upness -- remains instructive, because the coach and the Patriots are grappling this week with another devastating injury that might once again short-circuit a playoff run. This time, it is to tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose entrance into the lineup late this year transformed a sputtering offense -- and whose departure because of a season-ending knee injury suffered last Sunday threatens to upset the delicate balance the Patriots had forged, with an explosive attack offsetting a fragile defense.
The Patriots' formula for the rest of the way will surely shift -- expect a bigger role for running back Shane Vereen, more dinking and dunking and fewer multiple-tight end personnel packages -- but the mentality will not. For those who have played for New England, the scenario is strikingly similar to others in the past, whether it was Brady and Rodney Harrison, both of whom landed on injured reserve in 2008, or Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Gronkowski now. No coach is better prepared to adjust to life without his best players, they say.
"The magic of Bill is, it's not just rhetoric," said Heath Evans, who was a fullback on the 2008 team and is now an NFL Media analyst. "People think what he says in the press conference is different than what he says to the team. It's not. Rob's name, I would bet, would not come in the team meeting. There will not be, 'We've got to pick up the pieces.' It's not cold-hearted. It just works. Bill actually believes it."
By around this time in 2008, the Patriots had placed 15 players on season-ending injured reserve, including Brady, Harrison, Laurence Maroney (their best running back), Adalius Thomas (their top linebacker) and Pierre Woods (Thomas' replacement). Still, by widening their formations and getting Randy Moss and Wes Welker out wide, the Patriots forced defenses to reveal their intentions and made the quarterback reads simpler. New England coaxed an 11-win season out of an army of backups, including quarterback Matt Cassel, who performed so well that there was briefly conversation among fans about keeping Cassel and trading Brady for a bounty of picks. The Patriots barely missed the playoffs, an almost-beside-the-point note in what might have been Belichick's finest coaching effort.
Until this one. Although their 2008 IR list was longer, the injuries they've had this season have arguably taken out a greater number of their most valuable players. Wilfork (who will have missed 12 games by season's end), Mayo (10) and Gronkowski (nine) are among the very best at their positions in the NFL. Then there's defensive tackle Tommy Kelly (11) and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (eight). Receiver Danny Amendola missed four games at the start of the season, Vereen missed eight and cornerback Aqib Talib missed three. The Patriots were fortunate in one respect: The defense was largely intact while Gronkowski and Amendola were out early in the season with injuries and the offense struggled so much that there were questions about whether Brady had begun a career downturn. By the time the pass catchers returned, the injuries on defense had accrued and Brady and the offense looked more like, well, Brady and the offense.
Gronkowski's impact has been profound. In the seven games he played, the Patriots averaged 32 points and 298.1 passing yards, compared with 20.8 points and 228.3 passing yards when he was out. They were second in the league in points per game with him and 22nd without him. Gronkowski was especially important in the red zone, where Brady completed 64 percent of his passes for 6.5 yards per attempt when Gronkowski was on the field versus 50 percent and 3.7 yards when he was not.
So how can the Patriots survive this? In much the same way that they did in 2008: By tapping players who have been waiting in the wings and putting them in roles where they can contribute.
"Bill likes to stay two steps ahead of the game," said former Patriots defensive lineman Ty Warren, who was on the 2008 team. "When somebody like Gronk or Vince or Amendola gets hurt, he's a big depth guy. He's got that farm-system type of mentality. He's still got somebody like Julian Edelman he's been grooming two or three years -- he's going to bring him on and let him contribute. And he makes sure the third-string, farm-system type of guys get the same type of reps the first string does.
"When a player like Matt (Cassel) hears that Brady is down, or Gronk is down, that player, who may be a reserve to Gronk, he can't bring to the table what Gronk did, but he has a contract, he may have incentives, he may view this as his opportunity, like Matt did, to get that contract. Bill is always talking about taking advantage of your opportunity. When that time comes, as unfortunate as it is, they're happy for the opportunity. Bill doesn't have a problem saying that if they don't take advantage of the opportunity, he'll go find someone who will."
Warren said that when friends ask him his opinion of the Patriots' fortunes, he tells them Belichick can pull nine or 10 wins out of a season on the preparation of players alone, no matter who is out there. The business model is so effective that Warren has adopted some of its tenets -- there will not be a lot of excuses and you can't depend on people who are absent -- in his own property management business in College Station, Texas.
Still, before Gronkowski's injury, the Patriots appeared to be the only team with a good chance of challenging the Broncos for AFC supremacy. Without him, they look considerably more vulnerable, like they did in 2008. Late in that season, Belichick -- never one given to self-reflection -- would not even concede that the Brady-less campaign had been more challenging than others.
"If we have to make an adjustment or change in personnel, then we make it and do it," Belichick said then. "I can't rank one week against another."
Everyone else will, though.
"If Bill pulls off an AFC Championship Game appearance with this group, it's, hands down, he's the greatest coach that has ever coached this game," Evans said. "You can't lose arguably the best defensive tackle in football (and) a Pro Bowl middle linebacker -- those safeties, I would call them an embarrassment -- and still do this."
There are just three weeks to go before the NFL's postseason -- and firing season -- begins. Here are 10 more things to ponder in Week 15:
1) Has a meaningless game ever had as much intrigue as Washington-Atlanta? How furious are Robert Griffin III and owner Daniel Snyder that coach Mike Shanahan benched Griffin for the rest of the season? What happens if Kirk Cousins starts in Griffin's place and plays well against Atlanta's 27th-ranked defense? Does Shanahan get fired when the team arrives home? Has dysfunction ever had this many layers? Beyond the latest installment of the Redskins' psychodrama, there is something at stake with the outcome. Both teams enter the game with 3-10 records, so the loser will be in prime position to get the second overall draft pick in May (behind the Houston Texans). That would be another blow for the Redskins; the St. Louis Rams own Washington's first-round pick as part of the trade that allowed the Redskins to draft Griffin.
2) Is the Cowboys' defense the balm for the Packers' bruised offense? Without Aaron Rodgers, the Packers' offense has suffered dramatically, averaging 13.0 fewer points (dropping from third to 31st in this category), 96.2 fewer yards, 68.9 fewer passing yards and 27.2 fewer rushing yards per game. Green Bay's third-down conversion rate has dipped 16.7 percent without Rodgers. But the Cowboys' defense has been historically bad this season: It's allowed at least 490 yards of offense five times (tied for the most since 1940), forced just 23 three-and-out drives (the fewest in the NFL) and allowed 324 first downs (the most). Both teams are clinging to playoff hopes.
3) Will either the Ravens or Lions solidify their precarious playoff positions? These teams have the two worst turnover differentials among teams with winning records. The Lions have lost 14 fumbles this season, second-most in the NFL behind the Broncos' 16. The Lions also have a league-leading 38 dropped passes. Their remaining schedule puts them in a favorable position to stay atop the NFC North. Their opponents' records are 15-23-1 and every game is indoors, so the Lions cannot play in the snow -- which decorated their Philadelphia debacle -- until the playoffs. The Ravens, who are trying to hold on to the AFC's second wild-card spot, play nothing but division leaders in the final three weeks.
4) If snow couldn't do it, is there any chance the Vikings' defense can slow the Eagles' offense indoors? The Eagles, who lead the NFC East by one game but would lose the division if the Cowboys were to win out, rank third in the league in total offense, while the Vikings are 31st in total and scoring defense. Worse, they might not have running back Adrian Peterson to extend drives and keep the Eagles off the field. That would give Nick Foles more chances to throw touchdown passes, which he does on 9.2 percent of his throws -- the best rate in the NFL. The Vikings have allowed 29 passing touchdowns, worst in the NFL.
5) Will the Bears regret sitting Josh McCown for Jay Cutler? McCown played so well in Cutler's absence that, though Marc Trestman never wavered in his commitment to start Cutler when healthy, questions arose as to whether Trestman should have stuck with the hot hand. McCown, who threw 11 touchdown passes and one interception as a starter, had multiple-touchdown games in four of his five starts, helping the Bears stay on the heels of the Lions in the NFC North. McCown's completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and yards per attempt were all better than Cutler's -- and yet, on Thursday, Trestman announced Cutler will get the start on Sunday. The Bears, meanwhile, have the NFL's worst run defense, but the Cleveland Browns have not had a 100-yard rusher in 20 straight games.
6) Will Carolina's defense rebound after getting strafed by the Saints to stay in playoff position? It's hard to figure how the Jets, who are tied with Jacksonville for the fewest offensive touchdowns (18) despite beating Oakland 37-27 last week, will be able to accumulate much in the way of points against the league's top-ranked scoring defense. Carolina has allowed 10 or fewer points five times this season, tied with Seattle for most in the NFL; the Jets have scored fewer than 10 points in four of their past eight games. The Panthers also have 26 takeaways, which is fourth-most in the NFL; the Jets are second in the league with 28 giveaways.
7) Can Andy Dalton put his slump further behind him and help the Bengals stay in the chase for a playoff bye? Between Weeks 9 and 13, Dalton completed just 53.9 percent of his throws, tallying six touchdown passes against nine interceptions. Last week, he snapped out of it, completing 68.6 percent of his passes against Indianapolis for three touchdowns and zero interceptions. The Bengals are the best in the league at long drives, scoring 10 touchdowns on drives that start inside their own 20. The Steelers -- their opponents on Sunday -- have allowed three such drives this season.
8) Will anybody throw the ball in San Francisco-Tampa Bay? These two teams are averaging the fewest passing yards per game this season, but the 49ers are trying to hold on to the NFC's sixth playoff spot with their defense. They have won eight out of their past 10 games and have allowed 13 points per game during that span, with losses to the Panthers and Saints by a combined four points. The Bucs might not give them much of a test. Tampa Bay has won four of its past five -- but has the NFL's second-worst total offense and second-worst third-down conversion rate.
9) Can the Saints prove in St. Louis they are as dangerous on the road as at home? The Saints are just 3-3 on the road this season and average two fewer touchdowns and nearly 100 fewer yards per game on the road than they do at home. New Orleans can take the NFC South crown by winning two of its final three games, even without a win against Carolina next week. But two of their final three games are on the road, and the NFC playoffs are likely to go through Seattle.
10) Can the Chiefs continue to halt a defensive skid versus the Raiders before facing the Colts and Chargers to close the season? The Chiefs allowed the Redskins just 10 points and 257 yards last week, but after having one of the NFL's top defenses through Week 10, Kansas City is in the bottom half in the past four weeks, including points per game, sacks and third-down percentage. In yards per game, the Chiefs' defense is last since Week 11. The Raiders have lost three straight -- but scored 27 points against the Jets.
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.