He tumbled to the grass like he had done one too many shots of Jägermeister while parading around shirtless in a blizzard as a Hell Week stunt, and regardless of how you feel about the writhing ball of pissed-off reptilian fury that is the 2015 New England Patriots, there was something kind of depressing about seeing Rob Gronkowski writhing on the ground in the sort of anguish that could potentially derail an entire season of fuck-you’s.
These are the Patriots at 10-1, and after last night’s 30-24 loss to the Broncos, everything is back on the table. The undefeated season is dead, the offensive line is a patchwork quilt and the defense has its own share of holes that can be exploited. And most disturbing of all, Gronk is hurt, along with the already departed Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and Dion Lewis. Gronk, who opened up the New England offense so much that it could be argued he is the only tight end in NFL history who might be as valuable a player as his quarterback; Gronk, who was also the lead spiritual bro in this bro-addled nation of ours.
So now the Patriots are back to pulling their shit together from practice-squad call-ups and third-string dudes with made-up names like Chris Harper, Tom Brady is berating referees just because he can and a fanbase that is already pissed off at the entire American establishment now has even more to be pissed off about, because what the hell is an “excess timeout” anyway?
I mean, did anyone really think the Patriots’ undefeated season would end here, in Denver, in a snowstorm, against a team that appeared to be fading into the shadows a couple of weeks earlier? Did anyone really think it would end against a quarterback who is not Peyton Manning, a quarterback who, up until a few short weeks ago, was mostly known as the incredibly tall dude who displaced Peyton Manning because Manning can no longer walk like a normal human being? This whole thing was supposed to be one of the final iterations of a Brady-Manning rivalry that had carried the league for more than a decade, but instead it became the coming-out party for Brock Osweiler, who is now the quarterback of a 9-2 team that is only a step behind the Patriots.
Let us not forget: Many years ago, Tom Brady himself was a backup to a pretty good quarterback, and then stole that man’s job. And I wonder if Drew Bledsoe felt a little pang of schadenfreude last night, watching Osweiler lead a late drive to put the Broncos ahead, then rebounding from what could have been a crushing Patriots’ game-tying field-goal drive in the final seconds of regulation by pulling off the game-winner (on a run by C.J. Anderson) in overtime? Because suddenly Brock Osweiler appears like he might be capable of throwing a wrench into the Patriots’ inevitable march to the Super Bowl. Because it’s not unfathomable, after what he did last night, to think that Brock Osweiler may be the next very-good-to-great Broncos quarterback.
Let us also not forget: This whole thing – the very notion that the Patriots were somehow capable of transcending the prescribed rules of football itself – began in the snow, nearly 14 years ago. And it’s very possible that nothing ended last night, except the Patriots’ pursuit of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. They are still the favorites to win the AFC, they are still a team that will play the remainder of this season with a boulder-sized chip on its shoulder and they are still a team with a quarterback who appears to show no signs of slowing down even as the twilight of his career creeps up on him. But if the Patriots have to do it without Gronk – who’s currently undergoing testing on his injured knee – it gets way harder. If they have to do it without Gronk, they suddenly seem a lot less scary, a lot more like a team that is more bark than bite.
Perhaps there are a few more fuck-you’s remaining in the Patriots’ repertoire, but it’s getting harder and harder to do so the more people go down around Tom Brady. Maybe the miracle was that the Patriots got to 10-0 in the first place; maybe the team that appeared to have been most deeply affected by attrition last night is not the one we thought it was going into the evening. Maybe the era of Brock Osweiler is just beginning.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb