The New England Patriots sit in the driver's seat for the AFC's second seed, but their playoff hopes have dimmed because of a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball.
The loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski is crushing, turning Tom Brady's passing game into a dink-and-dunk operation that struggled to dial up explosive plays in Sunday's loss to the Miami Dolphins. The real concern, however, comes on defense, where the Patriots have allowed an average of 417 yards over their past four games.
The early-season loss of linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork battered this unit. Neither will play again this season, but the 32-year-old Wilfork promised he'd return better than ever from his torn Achilles in 2014.
"I'll be back," Wilfork said Tuesday night, per the Boston Herald. "There's no question in my mind. That's not even a question. People can worry about it. But not me. I'll be back."
Realistic concerns over Wilfork's comeback, if there are any, center around the difficult rehab attached to Achilles injuries, especially for a 30-something behemoth -- albeit a spry behemoth -- weighing in at 325 pounds.
"It's always frustrating," Wilfork said. " ... The only thing I can do is prepare each day and try and get better with the rehab, and that's what I've been doing. Take it day by day and, hopefully, I'll get healthy soon."
Before Wilfork was lost in late September, New England had held opponents to fewer than 100 yards on the ground in two of the first four games. With him out of the lineup, the Patriots have done that just once in 10 outings. Outside of Brady, Wilfork means as much to this team as anyone, and his absence has proven that in 2013.