The New England Patriots likely lost last year's Super Bowl because tight end Rob Gronkowski was a shambling version of himself.
The Amherst native suffered a high ankle sprain in the AFC title game and barely factored into the Super Bowl. Gronkowski, one of the most prolific tight ends in NFL history, had two catches for 26 yards in a 21-17 loss to the New York Giants.
The Patriots will have to win completely without him this time.
Gronkowski broke his left forearm again in Sunday's 41-28 victory over the Houston Texans. The injury will deprive Western New York of an intriguing matchup against Baltimore Ravens cornerback Corey Graham, who had another great game Saturday against the Denver Broncos.
The Patriots did just fine without Gronkowski on Sunday, and they're still favored to beat the Ravens by 10 points. The Patriots also went 4-1 when he was sidelined in the regular season.
"It's hard to replace a player like him because he's a freak of nature," Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez said. "Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling."
Gronkowski's absence certainly will matter.
He averaged five catches, 70 yards and one touchdown every time he played this season.
"He's a tough player," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "He's probably one of the best players at that position. But what can you do? You have to move forward, be able to move forward, and we have a lot of guys that can step in and make plays.
"We've seen it throughout this season, guys stepping in because of injuries or whatever it may be, guys stepping up and making plays for us. It will be another case where somebody has to step in and step up and make some plays, and I'm pretty sure that our guys will do that."
I recall laughing when the Patriots said similar things about Tom Brady in 2008, and a guy named Matt Cassel went on to win 11 games as the starting quarterback.
If any team can mentally handle the next-man-up philosophy, it's New England.