The New England Patriots were, mostly, an elite team with a healthy Rob Gronkowski.
The offense was tremendous. The Patriots looked as good as they have the past few years. A collision with the Denver Broncos in the AFC playoffs seemed inevitable.
Gronkowski is done for the season with a torn ACL and MCL. Aside from Aaron Rodgers' collarbone, Gronkowski's knee might be the injury that impacts the NFL playoffs the most. He changes the game. He's impossible to guard, an enormous movable piece that occupies two defenders on most plays. In many ways he's unlike any other tight end we've seen. The Patriots weren't the same without him early in the season. They won't be the same without him the rest of this season.
There's reason to believe the Patriots can survive. New England was 5-1 when Gronkowski made his season debut. There's also reason for concern. Tom Brady was having one of his worst seasons, statistically, until Gronkowski really hit his stride. The Patriots are a hard team to project for the rest of the year without Gronkowski.
Maybe other targets will pick up some slack for Gronkowski this time around (Danny Amendola and Shane Vereen missed time early this season when Brady was struggling, too), but it's obviously a huge blow. Take away Gronkowski and defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who is also out for the season, and you've removed two of the top 50 or so players in the NFL off the Patriots.
If Bill Belichick and Brady can lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl without those two players (and other stellar players like linebacker Jerod Mayo and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer who are on IR), this will be among their greatest accomplishments. And that list is long.
For now the Patriots are No. 5 in the power rankings. Most teams who have lost the star power the Patriots have would dip further. But if anyone can overcome what the Patriots have lost, maybe it's the combination of Brady and Belichick.
Here are this week's power rankings:
32. Houston Texans (2-11, LW: 32)
I feel bad for Andre Johnson. He played a great game against Jacksonville. He plays great most weeks. He's wasting a year of his prime.
31. Washington Redskins (3-10, LW: 31)
All that's missing is a ringmaster, elephants and calliope music. Also: It's not a bad idea to shut down Robert Griffin III.
30. Atlanta Falcons (3-10, LW: 29)
Believe I've noticed Tony Gonzalez making sure he keeps possession of the football after his last couple touchdowns. He didn't even dunk on his score against Green Bay. I assume he wants to make sure he has his last NFL touchdown ball.
29. Minnesota Vikings (3-9-1, LW: 28)
Speaking of shutting players down, if Adrian Peterson plays another snap this year the Vikings are nuts. They need to make sure he's OK going into the offseason.
28. Oakland Raiders (4-9, LW: 25)
I don't get this quarterback shuffle. They're not giving either guy a fair chance to impress for 2014.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-9, Last week: 30)
The 4-1 run is weird because the 0-8 start was well earned. They lost every game by double digits. Give credit to coach Gus Bradley. Jacksonville has to be thrilled with him.
26. New York Giants (5-8, LW: 23)
All the "Giants are making a charge!" talk from a few weeks ago gets funnier and funnier every time you see this horrendous team play.
25. Buffalo Bills (4-9, LW: 22)
It was obvious the loss to the Falcons two weeks ago was a soul crusher. They need to make sure they don't lose all momentum before the offseason.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-9, LW: 27)
There are a lot of reasons, but this is a fact: Bobby Rainey looks better than much-hyped and now-injured back Doug Martin did at almost any point this season.
23. Cleveland Browns (4-9, LW: 26)
Tough loss at New England, but in the grand scheme of things the Browns should feel pretty good about what happened on Sunday.
22. St. Louis Rams (5-8, LW: 20)
Can you imagine if they get a top two or three pick from the Robert Griffin III trade, and trade that for a couple more first-round picks and another second-rounder too?
21. Green Bay Packers (6-6-1, LW: 24)
A little perspective here: They won at home by one point against a 3-10 dome team in frigid temperatures. But, it buys another week for Aaron Rodgers to ride in on a white horse.
20. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-8, LW: 17)
Let's say Antonio Brown doesn't step out of bounds (and Ben Roethlisberger's lateral wasn't ruled to go forward), scores on the final play and the Steelers get the extra point. Is that the greatest finish in NFL regular-season history? Is it better than DeSean Jackson's punt return at the Giants? The Holy Roller? Dan Marino's fake spike?
19. Tennessee Titans (5-8, LW: 19)
I get why they'd give up on Chris Johnson. And understand if they fire Mike Munchak. Not so sure giving up on Jake Locker is the right move though. I'd give him one more shot.
18. New York Jets (6-7, LW: 21)
I know I have no reason to believe this, but I think Geno Smith will be a good NFL quarterback. Someday.
17. Dallas Cowboys (7-6, LW: 13)
You're telling me that hiring 73-year-old Monte Kiffin as defensive coordinator, after Kiffin had a terrible stretch at USC, was a bad idea? Get outta here.
16. San Diego Chargers (6-7, LW: 18)
Let's say they lose Thursday at Denver. They'll probably beat Oakland at home in Week 16. Then they get the Chiefs at home in the finale, and Kansas City likely will have nothing to play for. Will 8-8 get them in?
15. Indianapolis Colts (8-5, LW: 12)
The fact that the same Colts team we've seen struggle the past month also beat the Seahawks and the Broncos (four combined losses all season) once upon a time is absolutely crazy.
14. Miami Dolphins (7-6, LW: 16)
This isn't a perfect team, but they've shown a lot of heart. Coming back to win in the snow at Pittsburgh was really impressive.
13. Baltimore Ravens (7-6, LW: 15)
Not sure a home win against a 3-9-1 Vikings team that lost Adrian Peterson early should have been that hard.
12. Chicago Bears (7-6, LW: 14)
Josh McCown has played very well. I don't know if you want to hitch your wagon to him for the long term, but he'd be a great bridge if the Bears want to draft a quarterback next May.
11. Detroit Lions (7-6, LW: 10)
Home against the Ravens and Giants, on the road against the Vikings ... which game(s) do they lose to blow the North title?
10. Arizona Cardinals (8-5, LW: 11)
Seattle's last-minute loss hurt the Cardinals way more than the Seahawks.
9. Philadelphia Eagles (8-5, LW: 9)
I still think this team's roster needs a lot of work. But they're a team nobody really wants to play in the first round of the playoffs.
8. Kansas City Chiefs (10-3, LW: 8)
The Chiefs have feasted off bad teams all season. Good thing for them their likely first-round playoff opponent is Indianapolis, which is a bad team right now.
7. Cincinnati Bengals (9-4, LW: 7)
It's possible that their Week 17 game against Baltimore could decide the division title. I think the Bengals are too good this year to let that happen.
6. San Francisco 49ers (9-4, LW: 6)
Frank Gore is pretty amazing. He's 69 yards from his seventh 1,000-yard season in his last eight years. At 30, he still looks great. His run late against the Seahawks to set up the game-winning field goal was enormous for the 49ers season.
5. New England Patriots (10-3, LW: 4)
If Bill Belichick can get this team the first-round bye, which might take 13 wins, I don't know why he wouldn't be coach of the year. Just because preseason expectations weren't low doesn't mean he hasn't done the best job. He's the best coach in the NFL. Seems like a decent reason to give him the award.
4. Carolina Panthers (9-4, LW: 3)
They can't win at the Superdome. Join the club.
3. New Orleans Saints (10-3, LW: 5)
Stop me if you've heard this before: They're unbeatable at the Superdome and a different team on the road. It's simply not much more complicated than that.
2. Denver Broncos (11-2, LW: 2)
The Rob Gronkowski injury affects New England the most, obviously. This team is No. 2 on that list. The window is wide open for Denver.
1. Seattle Seahawks (11-2, LW: 1)
Judge the full body of work. Don't overreact to a final-minute loss at a good San Francisco team. This is still the best team in football.
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The Saints are truly a different team at the Superdome, almost unbeatable with the combination of Sean Payton calling plays and Drew Brees executing them.
And after Sunday, the Saints are a big step closer to ensuring a game at the Superdome on the second weekend of the NFL playoffs.
Carolina came into Sunday night's game as the upstart in the NFC South, riding an eight-game winning streak behind a tough defense and Cam Newton. The Saints tore apart that defense and made Newton a non-factor in an impressive 31-13 win.
New Orleans is now 10-3 and a game ahead of 9-4 Carolina in the NFC South. There will be a rematch in Carolina in two weeks, but the Panthers need help to win the division. If the Panthers win out, the Saints still win the tiebreaker by winning two of their last three due to a better conference record.
The Saints, who are now 7-0 at home and 3-3 on the road this season, left little doubt that they should be considered the top dog in the division.
Carolina had allowed just two first-half touchdowns all season, but the Saints scored three touchdowns in the first half on Sunday night. Last week, the Saints were bothered a bit by the noise at Seattle. The Saints home crowd was polite when their team had the ball, allowing Brees to adjust plays at the line of scrimmage and find the weak spots of the Panthers' defense. Brees was 30-of-42 for 313 yards and four touchdowns, six days after struggling outside against Seattle.
Brees joined Brett Favre, Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and John Elway as the only quarterbacks to throw for 50,000 yards in a career, and Brees set a record for reaching that mark in the fewest games.
Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham each had two touchdowns from Brees. And the defense was great against Carolina. Newton had just 160 yards passing, and the Panthers' only touchdown came in the second half when the Saints already had a comfortable lead.
Carolina has been a great story, and their loss on Sunday night doesn't mean they can't make a run in the playoffs in January. But it won't be good for the Panthers, or anyone else, if they have to come to the Superdome in January. It's just too hard to beat the Saints in that building.
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It took a few good men to destroy the Panthers.
It’s no secret that the Carolina Panthers need help in their secondary. Today I’ll take a look at one college cornerback prospect who is probably already on the Panthers radar.
The season is effectively over for the Panthers running back.
It's a numbers game, and 72,000 couldn't beat a lot less.
Well, that was a game of football.
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