For a time this season, it appeared the New England Patriots were past their sell-by date. A 24-23 loss at Seattle on Oct. 14 seemed to confirm this would be a tough slog for the Patriots. They were stuck at 3-3 -- matching last year's loss total in the regular season. It was the same record as the other three teams in the AFC East.
But things change fast in the NFL. New England has won four in a row and taken complete control of the division. It can basically put it away with a win at the New York Jets on Thanksgiving night. The Jets, Dolphins and Bills are all 4-6 entering the weekend.
One major issue for the Patriots: How will they replace star tight end Rob Gronkowski? He suffered a broken left forearm in last week's win over Indianapolis and underwent surgery on Monday. Gronkowski is likely out four to six weeks -- and, really, no team in the NFL could effectively replace him. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski admitted that he pulls people into his NFL Films office when he watches Patriots game video to see Gronkowski's plays.
"And it's not necessarily one of those great acrobatic catches he makes," Jaworski said. "It's at the line of scrimmage -- his pass-blocking ability when they do decide to keep him in to block, his run-blocking ability when they run behind him is second to none. He is a dominant football player."
But if any team can get by for a few weeks without that kind of player, it is New England, Jaworski said. The Patriots already implement specific game plans to attack teams' weaknesses instead of simply tweaking a consistent formula from week-to-week. Change is not scary to them. Lacking a true fullback, they also carry more tight ends on their roster and use those players in multiple roles and formations -- as an H-back or a wing back, for instance. One key will be the return of tight end Aaron Hernandez, who can't match Gronkowski's overall skill set but is a fine receiver. He has missed six games with an ankle injury but reportedly will play Thursday.
- Brian McNally