The New England Patriots are holding their breath with Rob Gronkowski set to undergo his fourth arm surgery on Monday. The oft-injured tight end might not be ready for training camp, depending on what the doctors find when he goes under the knife. But does it even matter to the juggernaut Pats? New England has won four straight AFC East titles (and nine of the past 10) and still has Tom Brady and Bill Belichick at the controls. What are your expectations for the 2013 Patriots?
Until Tom Brady shows serious signs of slowing down, the Patriots' expectations should remain at the highest level. And the good news for the quarterback is that there are signs the team is becoming more diverse, able to win in different ways, as the Denver Broncos did in the twilight of John Elway's career. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen power a revived running game, and a young front seven on defense should continue to grow. The team needs players to emerge at receiver and in the secondary, but they've done more with less at those spots in the past.
As for the tight ends' health, because of the construct of the offense, it's vital that Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are upright and healthy -- when it counts, that is. The Patriots are good enough to get through the regular season with those guys hobbled. They've proven that. It's in the playoffs when losing those guys hurts. It'll be big for the team to manage both of them, if they are nicked up again in the fall, in an effort to have them at 100 percent come January.
Gronkowski is arguably the best tight end in the game, with a combination of size, speed and athleticism that makes him indefensible between the hashes. Tom Brady depends on him as the No. 1 option in the passing game, which sets up the rest of the Patriots' playmakers on the perimeter. This is particularly important without Wes Welker (who joined the Denver Broncos as a free agent) in the lineup to control the middle of the field from the slot receiver position. Without Gronk, the Patriots' opponents would focus their efforts on shutting down Aaron Hernandez, forcing Brady to rely on Danny Amendola and a cast of lesser names to carry the offense.
The expectations for the Patriots are the same as they always are: Win the AFC East and head to the playoffs with a fighting chance. That's all Bill Belichick ever sets as his goals, and that's always what they do. As long as Tom Brady is upright, those will continue to be the expectations.
When one player goes down, the Patriots slot in another to fill his responsibilities. The only caveat New England has learned is that sometimes, Gronk's contributions will be missed. In the Patriots' near-flawless 2011 season, they stumbled only when his ankle couldn't hold up late against the New York Giants. And don't we all wonder how last season's AFC title game would have gone if Gronk's forearm had enabled him to be healthy?
Without Gronkowski, I wonder if the Pats can be elite, if they can go all the way. Up to this point, they haven't been able to. That's why the Patriots can take their time allowing him to be healthy -- they need him at the end instead of the beginning.
The Patriots have issues beyond Gronkowski's health. Losing Wes Welker and defensive tackle Kyle Love will hurt them. The secondary is still suspect, as is the pass rush. However, even with all of these concerns, the only team in the AFC East that could catch them is the Miami Dolphins -- and they're no sure thing, facing questions of their own. Will Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill be good enough -- especially in bad weather games? Will the Dolphins secondary hold up?
There are two types of expectations for New England in 2013: those of the short-term variety and those of the long-term. Short-term first: I fully expect them to win the AFC East again, holding off the Miami Dolphins while the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills press the reset button with new quarterbacks. It might be a bit more of a challenge than it was in years past, but the Patriots are still talented enough to be a regular-season juggernaut.
Now, though, the Patriots look like one of those NBA teams that is built to succeed during the regular season -- but not for an extended postseason run.
For the first time in a long time, the long-term expectations are quite different. In 2013, they won't enter the season as the prohibitive favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. Replacing Wes Welker with the fragile Danny Amendola was a huge gamble, and allowing Welker to go to Denver pushes the Broncos to the top of the list to play in New Jersey this February. At best, the Patriots are on equal footing with Houston and Baltimore, and if Rob Gronkowski can't get healthy, New England will fall behind both of those teams -- and quite possibly Indianapolis, as well.
We're seeing the Patriots' era of dominance come to an end. They've been living in the fast lane for more than a decade with Tom Brady, so you can't be upset with that, but slowly, this team is regressing. New England used to be able to hide its deficiencies pretty well, but that aura of invincibility is gone.
On the off-chance you missed my latest Playoff Pro-Shek-tions, I'll tell you again what I think will happen to the Pats:
Bill Belichick's team is still the AFC East's best, but thanks to dodgy drafting over recent years, a lack of collective development on defense and a now-questionable offensive line, this would-be dynasty has been brought back to Earth.
Considering the improved rosters in Miami and Buffalo, the race for the top might actually be compelling this season. Not to slight Tom Brady's greatness, but it's worth noting that he and his team have benefitted from playing in a lousy division for most of his career. That won't be the case this year, not with Dolphins defenders Cameron Wake and Dion Jordan bringing the heat on that Patriots O-line, and not with Miami signal-caller Ryan Tannehill putting the heat on that dicey secondary.
Yes, the Patriots will win the AFC East in 2013 ... but it'll be very, very close.