AS THE Patriots take the turf today at MetLife Stadium, looking to stretch the gap between themselves and the Jets to three games (plus a tiebreaker), injuries have them looking a lot different than the New England team that was predicted to easily distance itself from New York and the rest of the AFC East at the start of the year.
Linebacker Jerod Mayo joined defensive stalwart Vince Wilfork on season-ending injured reserve this week, forcing the Pats to vote two new defensive captains. Star cornerback Aqib Talib is doubtful to play today, while starting defensive lineman Tommy Kelly has been ruled out. So has Danny Amendola, while fellow receiver Julian Edelman and starting guard Dan Connolly are both among eight legitimate contributors listed as questionable, and versatile running back Shane Vereen hasn't played since the opener. Yet the focus isn't on who will not be in uniform this afternoon - it's who might be. It's on the potential return of Rob Gronkowski, the tight end who as of Friday was among the octet whose chances were officially considered 50-50, but who appears poised to make his season debut after missing six games while recovering from arm and back surgeries. "I feel so much better than I have the past few weeks," Gronkowski said in an undated video released Friday by a sports drink company in which he's a partner. "Compared to last week right now at this time, I feel great. And, say, last week compared to the week before that, I feel great. That's the only thing you can ask for is progressing every single week."
There was no indication from the team whether Gronkowski's progression will allow him to play, and the tight end turned down an opportunity to talk with reporters after participating in the week's final practice. But Friday his agent texted media members to say his client had been medically cleared by doctors, then came the video that was posted with the hashtag #BackToSuper, then a website affiliated with the player's family began selling T-shirts saying "Look who's baaaaack!" across the front.
Clearly the Gronkowski camp wants it known that he's ready to go, and it's a safe bet the Patriots have always wanted him out there as soon as possible, so it looks like a go. And given how long it's taken them to get to this point - and all the practices that length of the process has enabled him to participate in - it's fair to expect that when they get their tight end back, he won't merely be Gronkowski. He'll be Gronk.
The Patriots essentially played the first six weeks of the season with a shorthanded roster because they carried Gronkowski as part of the 53-man limit rather than put him on the physically unable to perform list, and had they known he'd miss the first six weeks, which is the minimum time a player must miss with that designation, the Pats might've been tempted to use that option - but if they had, he wouldn't have even been able to practice until this past Monday. He'd be far behind, and forced to catch up.
Instead, he's been practicing since Week 2. And practicing well. By all accounts he's been a beast in those workouts, particularly of late, and in fact he was named one of the "practice players of the week" for the period leading up to last week's game against the Saints.
So there's no reason he shouldn't hit the field at full speed, and get right back to being a superlative weapon that should help the Patriots in all areas of their offense - whether that's blocking in the run game, requiring careful coverage in the passing game, or presenting a monstrous target for Tom Brady in the red zone.
After all, that's the payoff all have sought for being patient throughout this process, and for proceeding what appeared to be a careful pace. By waiting until every medical hurdle had been cleared, the Patriots allowed Gronkowski to work himself back into better football shape, and get practice reps in, while also moving closer to peace of mind regarding his injuries and his rehabilitation.
UNDERRATED: Chris Jones. The undrafted rookie was released by Houston early in the year, then an afterthought in Foxborough, but, after the injuries to Wilfork and Kelly, Jones has done enough to earn the confidence of his Patriot coaches and "in a short amount of time, he's become a pretty dependable guy for us," Belichick said.
OVERRATED: The Jets' 3-3 record. New York's three victories have come against a trio of teams (Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Atlanta) that are a combined 3-13 to start the season.
KEEP AN EYE ON...: Stevan Ridley. After missing Week 5, he returned to run for 96 yards and two scores on 20 attempts, season-best totals across the board. Let's see if he can build on that again this week, and really reestablish his status as the Patriots' No. 1 back.
KEY MATCHUP: Patriots' offensive line vs. Jets' defensive line. Quarterback Tom Brady has been sacked nine times the past two weeks, indicative of some struggles up front. Muhammad Wilkerson (five) and Sheldon Richardon (2.5) have been piled up sacks for New York, and will need to be contained.
STAT OF THE WEEK: The Jets defense has forced only three turnovers this season - yet the unit has still allowed the second-fewest first downs (98) and its opponents' average drive still lasts just 2:21 and 5.3 plays.
D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader. His e-mail address is email@example.com.