In a week where most of the NFL's heavyweights struggled before surviving, New England was the one team which actually earned a few style points, walloping Andrew Luck and the up-and- coming Indianapolis Colts last Sunday.
Winning the battle against the Colts, however, made the war tougher when All- Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski suffered a broken forearm while blocking on a PAT attempt, the high-powered Patriots' 59th point of the day.
The Gronk-less Pats get right back to work on Thanksgiving Day when they make the trip down to North Jersey to face off with their desperate AFC East rival, the New York Jets.
The 7-3 Patriots, who will be playing on Thanksgiving for the fifth time in team history, will be aiming to strengthen their stranglehold on the AFC East.
New England, which is closing in on its ninth division title in 10 years, is a perfect 3-0 in the East and leads it by three games over the Jets, Buffalo and Miami, who are all deadlocked at 4-6, One of the Pats' division wins was back on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium when they edged New York 29-26, in overtime.
Most recently Tom Brady threw two of his three touchdown passes against the Colts to Gronkowski, who finished with seven receptions and 137 yards overall, as New England cooled off Indy with a 59-24 rout.
New England and Indianapolis, of course, had one of the NFL's greatest rivalries when Brady was dueling against Peyton Manning. That animosity was expected to be rekindled when Luck and his version of the Colts took aim at Brady and the Patriots for the first time.
In the end it was all Patriots as Brady connected on 24-of-35 passes for 331 yards, while Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen each rushed for fourth-quarter scores in the lopsided win, the fourth in a row for the Patriots.
Julian Edelman also contributed with a well-rounded performance, scoring on a a punt return, catching five passes for 58 yards with another TD and adding a 47-yard run.
"We got great contributions from all three phases of our team," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who picked up career coaching win No. 199. "The players really stepped up and delivered some big plays throughout the game."
New England's shaky pass defense even received a big boost from talented but troubled cornerback Aqib Talib, who was acquired by the Pats from Tampa Bay on Nov. 1. Talib made his presence felt in the second quarter, picking off an overthrown pass by Luck and zig-zagging across the field for a 59-yard touchdown in his Pats debut.
All the feel good stuff went out the window, however, when Stephen Gostkowski lined up for the afterthought with less than four minutes remaining and Gronk busted his left forearm while blocking.
Gronkowski underwent surgery Monday morning and will likely miss anywhere between four and six weeks. The latter number would mean Gronkowski would miss the rest of the regular season, something New England can probably overcome as far as the AFC East goes since the rest of the division hardly looks playoff worthy. But, challenging Houston for the top spot in the conference or earning a first round bye in the postseason now looks far more daunting.
The Patriots have already been without their other first-string tight end, Aaron Hernandez for the last three games -- and a total of six this season -- with a lingering right ankle injury first suffered in Week 2.
Hernandez is getting closer and went from being listed as "out" on the injury report to "questionable" after the Nov. 4 bye week and keeping that designation for each of the last three games. The Florida product practiced on a limited basis again on Monday, and Belichick called his availability for Thanksgiving a "game-time decision."
But as good as Hernandez is -- he had 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven TDs in 2011 -- he's not Gronkowski. Gronk is one of the toughest matchups in the NFL. Linebackers are far too slow to deal with the Arizona product and defensive backs can't deal with his massive 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame.
Remember what happened when Gronkowski severely sprained his left ankle in last season's AFC Championship Game -- the Pats' offense sputtered badly in the Super Bowl and the New York Giants pulled off the upset.
"He's been a very productive player, so other guys just have to step into that spot and do the job," Brady said when asked about Gronkowski. "That's what it comes down to. That's football and every team deals with it at one point or another. He's a tough guy to replace, but that's what we need to do."
The sequel to what happened in the Super Bowl could start on Thanksgiving against a Jets team that kept hope alive last Sunday when Bilal Powell had the most effective day of his career, rushing for two touchdowns and helping New York to a much needed 27-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams.
Powell rushed for just 42 yards on 11 carries, but scored twice in the fourth quarter to help secure the win for the Jets, who also got an outstanding effort out of their defense.
Despite early offensive miscues, the Jets' defense stayed resilient. For the game, they forced five punts and three turnovers, which led to 14 offensive points, while holding the Rams to just 281 yards of offense.
"Our guys have been working extremely hard and I'm really happy for all of us that it showed," said Jets coach Rex Ryan. "It was really a sound performance by the entire team."
After a rough game the previous week in Seattle, Mark Sanchez managed the game against the Rams well. He completed 15-of-20 throws for 178 yards and threw a touchdown pass to Chaz Schilens, who led the team with four catches for 48 yards.
Shonn Greene paced the rushing attack with 64 yards on 18 carries for the Jets.
"Right now, we're just swinging," Ryan said. "We're going to focus on our opponents, specifically, but anything we do, we're behind where we have to be. We can only focus on ourselves and just find a way to punch it. We earned where we are and we just have to find a way to punch our way out."
The Patriots have won 15 of their last 19 regular-season meetings with the Jets, including three straight. Overall, the Patriots are 2-2 on Thanksgiving, losing to Dallas in 1984 and Detroit in 2000 before topping the Lions in both '02 and '10.
The Jets history on the holiday dates back to 1960 when they were known as the Titans. When franchise founder Harry Wismer announced the 1960 schedule, he trumpeted the Thanksgiving Day game as an annual fixture to the AFL landscape. The Titans 41-35 victory over the Dallas Texans on Thanksgiving Day was the first of three straight for the franchise, which gave up the traditional spot on the calendar when it became the Jets in 1963.
New England last lost to the Jets in January 2011's divisional playoffs, dropping a 28-21 verdict at home.
"This will be fun. It's a fun game, playing the Jets in the Meadowlands on Thursday night; everyone should be pretty excited about that," Brady said.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Brady and the New England offense are all about getting everyone involved and exploiting personnel matchups. The veteran QB has a host of weapons and isn't afraid to use them. Obviously without Gronkowski things get a little hazier for the Pats but Brady is more than capable of surveying the field and quickly diagnosing the most desirable matchup for his club.
"When you look at him, you can almost say he's a machine back there," Ryan said. "The thing about him is he's a machine, yet he's passionate and a fiery leader, so you wish he was just a machine. His competitive side elevates his team as well. That's what you get in those once-in-a-generation type quarterbacks, that he's just a special guy."
The Jets would like to attack what has been a pedestrian New England secondary which ranks 30th in the league, allowing 289.7 passing yards a game. But, Sanchez has been inconsistent from week to week thanks to a perfect storm of issues. The Tim Tebow situation is always going to be a distraction, the offensive line has had trouble pass blocking at times and Sanchez's receivers haven't been reliable.
Meanwhile Belichick feels he has alleviated some of his defensive backfield woes by moving Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety and inserting Talib.
The winner of the turnover battle has won six of the eight games in the series since Ryan joined the Jets in 2009 and the Pats have forced an AFC-leading 27 miscues in 2012.
Conventional wisdom says the home team has a big advantage during a short week but a more empirical evaluation points toward a veteran quarterback in such circumstances.
"Everything is just crunched down," Ryan said when asked about the short week. "This is a week there's not a whole lot of sleep for coaches, but your players have to get rested as best they can. Everything you do is trying to get your guys to where they're popping out of their skin on Thursday. That's the charge of every coach, to make sure your guys are mentally prepared yet also physically prepared for that kind of challenge that's in front of them."
Belichick and Josh McDaniels enjoy the luxury of being able to put in a game plan quickly and be comfortable in the fact that Brady will be able to handle what they are asking for. The same can't be said of Ryan and Tony Sparano with the Jets. Sanchez has struggled mightily for most of this season and expect things to continue on Turkey Day.
"We're just trying to prioritize our time; we don't have much of it," Brady said. "Hopefully everyone is spending their time wisely, not playing video games and stuff like that, trying to understand our plan and what we need to do. It's a very tough place to play. We've always played this team very tough. It should be a fun night."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Patriots 24, Jets 14
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