On Sunday, they'll see whether that continues or if their valuable tight end's absence will keep them from a second straight Super Bowl appearance.
"Certainly, Rob is a unique player and he has some skills that allow you to do special things with him," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said Monday. "I don't think it's really fair to say you just plug somebody in and off you go."
Michael Hoomanawanui filled in well enough after Gronkowski broke his left arm on the Patriots' seventh offensive play of their 41-28 win over the Houston Texans in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game.
He'll probably do it again in the conference championship game against the Ray Lewis-led defense of the Baltimore Ravens following Gronkowski's season-ending surgery Monday.
"Michael did a great job with the things we asked him to do," McDaniels said. "He certainly did a good job in protection and in the running game."
Hoomanawanui didn't catch any passes. But Gronkowski, who had 90 receptions last season and 55 in 11 games this season, had no catches in the Patriots' two games against Houston this season. And they dominated both contests.
Gronkowski was sidelined for the 42-14 rout on Dec. 10, the third of five games he missed after breaking his left forearm while blocking on an extra point late in a 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Nov. 18. He sat out the rest of Sunday's game after breaking his arm when he landed on it after catching a pass down the right sideline by Tom Brady that was ruled incomplete because Gronkowski didn't get both feet inbounds.
He had surgery on Monday, a person with knowledge of the operation said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the team has not announced the surgery.
The Patriots were 7-3 before Gronkowski was injured then went 4-1 without him. He returned for the regular-season finale, a 28-0 win over the Miami Dolphins in which he caught a touchdown pass. But he played only 25 of the Patriots' 80 offensive snaps in that game.
"We've played a bunch of games now, we've never really been fully healthy yet and obviously now won't be," Brady said Monday during his regular weekly appearance on WEEI radio. "But you know what? We've still got a very good team."
The Patriots also played without running back Danny Woodhead after he hurt his thumb while running with the ball on their first offensive play. Shane Vereen stepped in and scored three touchdowns - two on receptions and one on a run.
"That's a huge credit to our coaching staff and Tom as well, but that's what's expected of us," said Vereen, who had 124 total yards - 41 on seven rushes and 83 on five receptions. "When someone goes down, you're expected to step in and do your job."
Woodhead returned to the sidelines but never got back in the game, although coach Bill Belichick said Monday he could have played.
"Danny was examined. He was back on the sideline for the remainder of the game," Belichick said. "Had we needed to use him, he would have been available to go back in there. Now that we're into a new week, we'll readdress the whole situation, try to get a good feel for what he would and wouldn't be able to do and how functional he would be doing it."
Woodhead has been effective in a limited role. During the regular season, he had 301 yards and four touchdowns on 76 carries and 446 yards and three touchdowns on 40 receptions.
But Gronkowski is the Patriots' most important offensive player after Brady. He was hampered by a high left ankle sprain in last year's Super Bowl and made just two catches in the Patriots' 21-17 loss to the New York Giants.
But he rarely leaves the field when healthy.
He participated in 92 percent of the offensive snaps in the first 10 games this season. He played all 83 snaps in a 31-30 loss to Baltimore in the third game, and all 97 in a 31-21 win over the Denver Broncos in the fifth game, according to profootballfocus.com.
On Sunday, Gronkowski played just seven snaps then went to the bench with a look of pain on his face. He soon went to the locker room with team physician Dr. Thomas Gill. After the game, Belichick said he wasn't sure whether Gronkowski had broken his arm and that the player had received medical clearance to play.
He declined to elaborate in a conference call Monday.
Asked if Gronkowski was "100 percent" for the game, Belichick said, "I covered that yesterday. He was cleared medically. I don't have anything to add to it."
The offensive staff will get a new member when Brian Daboll is added as an assistant. Belichick said Daboll, the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs under fired coach Romeo Crennel, would join the staff "going forward, similar to what Josh did last year but without any specific responsibility."
McDaniels joined the Patriots as an offensive assistant before their first playoff game last year after serving as offensive coordinator of the St. Louis Rams. McDaniels then officially took over as New England offensive coordinator when his predecessor, Bill O'Brien, became coach at Penn State.
Daboll was a defensive assistant with the Patriots from 2000-2001 and wide receivers coach from 2002-2006. He was quarterbacks coach for the New York Jets from 2007-2008 before becoming offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns for two years and the Miami Dolphins and Chiefs for one year each.
"Having another set of eyes with experience and (someone who) has a lot of understanding of our system and how we go about doing things, I think, is only a positive," McDaniels said. "Every detail is very critical at this time of year and having another football coach on your staff to help is nothing but helpful."