- Associated Press - Monday, January 22, 2018

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In the two-week run-up to the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots will face plenty of questions about two things critical to the team’s success: Tom Brady’s right hand and Rob Gronkowski’s head.

Brady answered most of the concerns about whether the hand injury would hinder him with a strong performance in New England’s AFC championship game victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Gronkowski, meanwhile, will likely spend at least part of this week going through the concussion protocol. He suffered the injury on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jacksonville safety Barry Church.

The game-changing tight end is Brady’s favorite target, and he missed last season’s Super Bowl run after undergoing season-ending back surgery.

There was no update from the Patriots on Gronk’s status Monday, but he was at the facility for team meetings.

“He was in pretty good spirits today when I spoke to him,” special teams captain Matt Slater said.

Recently, New England has fared well when Gronkowski has been sidelined. But that hasn’t always been the case.

The Patriots had plenty of time to adjust to his absence in 2016, when he played just eight games before the surgery. They also had Martellus Bennett to pick up the slack.

Since the start of last season, New England is 12-1 without Gronk. In those games, the Patriots’ points per game actually increased from 28.6 to 28.8, although their yards per play declined from 8.1 to 7.6.

The offense was also better without him on third down and in the red zone. Over the past two seasons it converted on 49.3 percent of its chances on third down and scored touchdowns on 66 percent of its red zone trips without him, compared to 45 percent on third down and scoring touchdowns on 62.6 percent of red zone trips when he played.

From his rookie season in 2010 through 2015, his absence had a much greater impact.

The Patriots were 12-7 without Gronkowski over that span, averaging 31.5 points per game with him and 26.3 without him. The offense’s average yards per pass attempt also fell from 7.8 with him to 6.6 without him.

Before he was injured, Gronkowski passed Dallas Clark to become the NFL’s career leader for postseason yards at the position. And if the concussion were to sideline him for the Super Bowl, there’s not much depth behind him. The only tight ends on New England’s roster are Dwayne Allen and Jacob Hollister.

Allen has 10 receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown this season. Hollister has four catches for 42 yards and was inactive against Jacksonville.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said there is always a plan to adapt to injuries.

“You have to make some adjustments. We always go into the game with a certain idea of how we want to try to play it,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t always play out the way that you wanted it to or that you had hoped to or designed it to, but that happens in every game.

“So, everybody understands that that’s part of the game and when that happens, you just have to embrace whatever role you need to take on to help the team win.”

Brady still has stitches in his right thumb. He hopes to have them removed sometime this week, and he doesn’t expect the injury to be an issue once Super Bowl week arrives.

“And then I can just get out there and get normal treatment like I always do and be ready to go,” Brady said.

“This was a little injury at the end of the day. … I mean, I’ve had a lot worse injuries than this. If this was on my left hand, I could care less, but just based on where it was, we had to deal with it.”


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