MIAMI (AP) — It’s not that the New England Patriots are trying to sugarcoat the loss of Rob Gronkowski, but they feel fortunate to have succeeded in this situation before.
With a chance to clinch the AFC East on Sunday against the host Miami Dolphins, they are doing their best to take it in stride.
Gronkowski suffered a serious knee injury in last week’s 27-26 comeback win over Cleveland and will be out for the rest of the season, playing in just seven games after missing the first six due to back and forearm issues.
New England (10-3) went 5-1 in the star tight end’s absence.
“I’d like to think there’s going to be some carry-over there, not only (from) the first six weeks of the season, but the entire training camp as well,” coach Bill Belichick said. “That’s the way we practiced and played most of the year.”
Tom Brady surely will miss one of his favorite targets, but he isn’t going to sulk over Gronkowski’s latest injury.
“I mean, it’s disappointing to lose anybody, but we’ve faced that before this year and at different times, so I’d say at least we’re adjusted to it a little bit,” Brady said. “We still have confidence that we can go out and win games.”
A win or tie Sunday would give the Patriots their fifth straight division title and 10th in 11 seasons, and they’d clinch a playoff berth regardless of the result if Baltimore doesn’t win in Detroit on Monday night.
Victories haven’t come easy lately, though.
New England’s three-game winning streak hasn’t been for the faint of heart. It overcame a 24-point deficit to beat Denver 34-31 in overtime Nov. 24, then rallied from 10 down at halftime before Stephen Gostkowski kicked a pair of 53-yard field goals in the final 7:16 for a 34-31 win over Houston on Dec. 1.
The Patriots scored 13 points and recovered an onside kick in the final 61 seconds last week.
“Sometimes the stars align in your favor,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We’ve been real blessed this year to have the ball bounce our way and we’re just going to go with it. We’re not going to question the why of it.”
New England had to rally from a 17-3 halftime deficit against the Dolphins in the first meeting Oct. 27, scoring 24 unanswered points to earn its seventh straight victory in the series.
Brady finished 13 of 22 for 116 yards – his fewest when playing a full game since throwing for 78 against the Dolphins on Dec. 10, 2006 – and he’s expecting Miami to present another tough challenge.
“They’ve got a really good scheme. There are really no easy plays out there, so we’ve got to go out there and earn it,” Brady said. “Hopefully we can follow it up so we’re most prepared, and then go down and try to win a really important game.”
This contest may be more important for the Dolphins (7-6), who are tied with Baltimore for the AFC’s final playoff spot. They’ve won back-to-back games after last week’s wild 34-28 victory in snowy Pittsburgh.
After this game, Miami visits Buffalo next week before closing its schedule at home against the New York Jets on Dec. 29.
“All the games are going to be tough,” cornerback Brent Grimes said. “We just need to win. I don’t know how you’re looking at it, but we need to win. We need to take care of our business.”
The Dolphins have been to the playoffs once in the last 11 seasons, but coach Joe Philbin is refusing to look ahead as well.
“All that matters is that with an excellent team coming to town, that’s a full plate,” Philbin said. “We’re going to have to play extremely well. That’s what we have to keep focused on.”
Miami set a season high for points scored despite the tough conditions last week, and it will go up against a Patriots defense that ranks 24th in total defense at 372.3 yards per game. New England has just four sacks in the last three games, but the Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill has been sacked a league-high 48 times.
Tannehill threw a career high-tying three touchdown passes last week – two going to Charles Clay, who finished with seven catches for 97 yards.
Clay has emerged as one of Tannehill’s top targets, and his 678 yards are 114 short of breaking Randy McMichael’s single-season franchise record for a tight end set in 2004.
“He’s a heck of an athlete that makes small plays and big plays,” Tannehill said.
Clay had five catches for 37 yards in the last meeting for Miami, which hasn’t beaten New England since a 22-21 home win Dec. 6, 2009.
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