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Pre-Game Recon: Rob Gronkowski's Irreplaceable Impact For The Patriots

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Richard Hill of our sister site, Pats Pulpit, stops by to answer all of our burning questions on his beloved New England Patriots.

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1. I'll just get right to it - what the hell is happening in New England when it comes to injuries? It seems like every single week somebody important is going down. Is this normal for the Patriots, or has 2015 just been extra brutal?

The Patriots have seen a key starter go down in each of the past five weeks. In Week 9 it was running back Dion Lewis. In Week 10 Lewis was joined by wide receiver Julian Edelman, and in Week 11 wide receiver Danny Amendola went to the sideline. In week 12 tight end Rob Gronkowski was injured, and while Amendola returned for this past Week 13, the Patriot saw offensive guard Josh Kline (who leads the line in snaps this season) leave with a shoulder injury.

This doesn't include other short-term injuries to the offensive line, where the Patriots lead the league in line combinations, or the season-ending injury suffered by left tackle Nate Solder in Week 5.

These losses have been absolutely heartbreaking, and we've seen how the offense has struggled in recent weeks. The quick passing game that helped mask a lot of the flaws in the offensive line is no longer feasible with all of the injuries, and now opposing teams are able to force quarterback Tom Brady to hold onto the football longer than he would like.

I'd say this is fairly atypical for the Patriots, mostly because of how concentrated on the offense all of the injuries have been. While linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower have missed serious time, the bulk of the injuries are on offense.

2. Rob Gronkowski seems doubtful to play this week, according to Adam Schefter. While the football fan in me is sad that I can't watch a future Hall of Famer (yeah, I said it) do his thing on Sunday, the Texans fan in me considers that a huge break. What does Gronk mean to that Pats offense?

Everything. He's arguably the most important player in the offense. Without Gronkowski, the Patriots lose their most versatile player in the offense. as the elite tight end allows the offense to flex between running and passing plays without substitutions. The hurry-up offense is such an important part of the Patriots' schemes, but Gronkowski is one of the cornerstones.

Instead of Gronkowski, the Patriots will play tight end Scott Chandler, who is far less talented as a blocker and a receiver. You'll see the impact of Chandler's poorly timed drops on Sunday.

3. Chandler Jones, Jamie Collins, or Dont'a Hightower. Who is the best player in New England's front seven and why?

Dont'a Hightower gets my vote, although I wouldn't argue against Collins.

I think Jones has really grown as a player this year; he's been fantastic against both the pass and the run. He's a lot more comfortable playing multiple positions in the formation and he's even been dropping into coverage. Still, I think there are times where he overpursues and leaves big holes in the front. He needs to continue to improve his consistency.

Collins is undeniably the most athletic defender on the team (possibly the league), but he's able to thrive because Hightower does all of the dirty work. Hightower eats the blocks to let Collins make the plays. Hightower arranges the defense to open up lanes for Collins. Hightower seals the edge and drops into coverage of the linebackers to let Collins blast up the middle to disrupt the plays.

They are a perfect tandem and it's hard to love one without appreciating the work of the other. It's the Bill Belichick in me that appreciates when a player does all of the little things well enough to let others make plays around them.

4. Bill O'Brien has proven himself to be a remarkably resourceful coach in his first two seasons here. Even when all was lost and the fan base went in to panic mode multiple times (myself included), O'Brien found a way to correct his mistakes and guide this team through seemingly insurmountable obstacles over and over again. How much of this black magic did O'Brien learn from Bill Belichick, and what do you expect from these two on Sunday considering how well they know each other?

I hope you are all familiar with the Belichick Double Agent theory and understand that it's not O'Brien's fault if and when he calls a play that leaves you scratching your head. It's just destiny.

But seriously, O'Brien seems to be the only coach from the Belichick tree that is willing to admit mistakes and to correct them on the fly. Where other coaches (Eric Mangini, Josh McDaniels) have failed is in their arrogance and belief that they are right and the things would work if everyone would just stop and listen.

I think that every Texans coach is extremely familiar with Bill Belichick, and for that reason I kind of think the Texans won't overthink the game. The only coaches that don't get flustered when they face the Patriots are those that are intimately familiar with Belichick (the Tom Coughlins, Chip Kellys, John Harbaughs). Belichick has a connection with them, whether he served on their staff or he recommended them for their jobs. For that reason alone I think Houston will be dangerous.

5. What is your prediction for the game (assuming Gronk does not play), and why?

If Gronkowski doesn't play, I think this will be a close match and a quiet defensive struggle, blended with a couple huge plays that change the landscape of the game. I would like to predict that the Patriots will come out on top by a touchdown or so, but that really depends on the New England team that shows up. They've been plagued with a ridiculous number of drops (I believe the Texans have been as well), so let's just agree that whichever team has fewer drops on the day will probably leave as the victor.

A big thank you to Richard for sharing his insights with us. You can read his work on all things Patriots every day over at Pats Pulpit.

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