FOXBORO, Mass. -- By now, you have to wonder if the New England Patriots could even remember what full strength feels like, if they ever again are lucky enough to experience it. Here they are, making yet another deep playoff run, and they're faced with doing it without all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski, and maybe running back Danny Woodhead and defensive end Chandler Jones, too.
So what else is new in the Patriots' next-man-up world? Isn't Bill Belichick's team forever overcoming injuries, plugging in the next available player, and still managing to thrive? At least until it runs into the Giants in the Super Bowl?
That has to be one of the most annoying things about playing New England, the fact that you never really know from where the trouble is coming. You think you do, but you don't. The Patriots, in Sunday's 41-28 divisional-round playoff defeat of Houston, lost both Gronkowski (season-ending left forearm break) and Woodhead (thumb) early in the game, and barely missed a beat. They just plugged in reserve running back Shane Vereen, who proceeded to tie a team playoff record with a breakout three-touchdown game, and got a solid contribution from backup tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in Gronkowski's absence as well.
Whatever it takes. A dose of Stevan Ridley. Just enough Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd. And, of course, quarterback Tom Brady once again presiding over a balanced and multi-faceted New England offense, winning a league-record 17th career playoff game for himself in the process. There's a mind-numbing consistency to it all, which is exactly what the Patriots demand.
"These kind of games, you never really know when the dial spins, where it's going to wind up, who it's going to end up on,'' said Belichick, in a rare bit of color, at least as far as his analogies go. "Those guys were prepared. Offensively we were able to move the ball, put up some points. It's a credit to everybody to be ready.''
The Patriots were ready all right. Ready to put away this latest challenge from the 13-win AFC South champion Texans, even without their entire A team on the field. But that's the Patriot Way. The other team might think it has New England on a more level playing field once the injuries start occurring, but the Patriots never give an inch in that situation. Mentally or otherwise.
"That's been the mark of our team,'' said Brady, who finished with 25 completions on 40 attempts, for 344 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. "We've won 11 of 12. We were down 31-3 at home (to San Francisco in Week 15) and battled back. I think we're going to be in it. We have a lot of tough guys, mentally tough guys. Whatever happens, like what happened on the first play of the game (a 94-yard Texans kickoff return), you've got to overcome it.''
The Patriots (13-4) overcame on this day. Up just 17-13 at the half, New England blew the Texans away by scoring the game's next three touchdowns (by Ridley, Lloyd and Vereen), cruising out to a 38-13 early fourth-quarter lead. Houston made some noise after that, but the outcome was no longer in doubt.
This whole season has been something of a process to figure out what the Patriots are offensively, but does it really matter if there's no good definition? New England can beat you with its receivers, its tight ends and, against Houston, the running back tandem of Vereen and Ridley carried the load, combining for 123 yards rushing, six catches for 96 yards and four of the Patriots' five touchdowns. Even without Woodhead, New England's runners can all get it done in terms of rushing and receiving, and they never seem to run out of playmakers in Foxboro.
And now, without Gronkowski, who missed a good chunk of the season's second half with his original forearm injury, the Patriots are again knocking on the door of another Super Bowl trip, drawing a home game against resurgent Baltimore (12-6) in next Sunday's AFC Championship Game. Everyone in New England's locker room talked about what a huge loss Gronk will be in the playoffs, but they quickly added that someone else will invariably step up and fill the void.
"Step up'' gets repeated so often by the Patriots that it should be their official two-word motto. You could work in a ladder factory and not hear it as often as New England's players and coaches trot it out. But it's not just a slogan in Foxboro. It's a proven strategy, and players like Vereen make it pay off every time they're ready when the dial lands on their square.
"We hate to lose Woody,'' Vereen said of Woodhead, whose thumb injury severity remains unknown. "He is such a key part of our offense, but at the same time, all of the running backs hold ourselves accountable to be able to step up when somebody goes down.''
Vereen's 1-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter put the Patriots ahead for good at 7-3, and then he contributed in the passing game, logging both an 8-yard second-quarter touchdown catch to make it 17-3, and a game-icing 33-yard scoring grab early in the fourth quarter. Only Curtis Martin (1997) and Gronkowski (2012) himself have logged three-touchdown games in the playoffs for New England.
"We had a whole [game]plan built for [Gronkowski] and Woody,'' Brady said. "We run the first series of the game and all those plans change. I think a little of it was, 'What are we going to do now? How are we going to adjust?' But we seemed to settle in there midway through the first quarter and put together a pretty good game.
"Obviously it's a bummer to lose anybody, but somebody of Rob's importance or Danny's importance, we need guys to step in and fill the void. Whether it's this game or any game after.''
Jones suffered a twisted ankle and did not return in the second half. But the headline news was the Gronkowski re-injury. If there's a silver lining to his season being over, it's that New England has gotten used to playing without him dating to mid-November. He was hurt in a Week 11 win over the Colts in Foxboro, missed five games, then played in New England's regular season finale win over Miami. The Patriots went 4-1 in that span, and put together Sunday's winning effort largely without him.
Hard, but not the catastrophe it might be for other teams' Super Bowl hopes. In New England, they really don't know any other way. Other teams talk about how the train keeps moving, but with the Patriots, the train really does keep moving.
"Obviously we have that next man up mentality, no matter who gets hurt,'' inside linebacker Jarod Mayo said. "My rookie year, Tom [Brady] got hurt and we won 11 games. Any time we're not at full strength and we don't have all of our guys that we want on the field out there, it's obviously disappointing. But we have other guys who are waiting to get an opportunity to play. Hopefully those guys step in and fill in nicely.''
One Patriot who obviously will get more work with Gronkowski sidelined is Hernandez, New England's other gifted third-year tight end. Hernandez missed six games earlier this season after spraining an ankle in the team's home-opening loss to Arizona, but he had six catches for 85 yards against the Texans, trailing only Welker's team-high eight-reception, 131-yard night.
"It's hard to replace a player like him because he's a freak of nature,'' Hernandez said. "Everyone has to step up and everyone has to keep making plays so we can keep it rolling.''
As the 13-point dispatching of the Texans again proved, the Patriots keep it rolling no matter who is missing. The injuries kept coming, but they didn't stop New England from scoring 41 points and amassing 457 yards of total offense. It was Vereen and others to the rescue.
And now the Patriots get another AFC title game at home, where they are 3-0 in that situation in the Belichick era, and 5-1 in AFC Championships overall since 2001. A rematch with the Ravens awaits, and the Patriots will no doubt be ready. In New England, the stepping up has already begun.