The impending return of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a game changer heading into Sunday's game against the Jets. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, leaked the news early Friday that he was cleared to play but coach Bill Belichick wouldn't comment on the reports, stating the team's injuries would be listed on the injury report later in the day.
Gronkowski creates a potential matchup nightmare for Gang Green. The team has struggled in coverage against marquee players at his position the past few weeks. Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez had a field day against the Jets, catching 10 passes for 97 yards, and Heath Miller of the Pittsburgh Steelers gained 84 yards on six receptions.
Sidelined for the first six games while recovering from back and forearm issues, Gronkowski's absence created a bit of controversy within the organization. He's looked healthy in full contact practices yet doctors refused to clear him medically. As late as Thursday, the team and his agent stated he had not been cleared to play.
Whether something miraculously changed overnight or the Patriots were just using a bit of gamesmanship so the Jets couldn't fully prepare for him, Gronkowski's return is a blessing for quarterback Tom Brady and a very unfortunate thing for the Jets.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola is not expected to play and Julian Edelman has been dealing with thigh problems, so Brady would have been forced once again to work with very limited options. Brady was visibly angry with his young receivers in their Week Two victory over the Jets and even admitted he needed to do a better job of hiding his negative body language.
The season debut of their All-Pro tight end doesn't mean the Patriots are at full strength, though.
Since their last meeting, the Patriots have lost five-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, the team's leading tackler, to season-ending injuries.
In the Week Two matchup, the Jets successfully racked up 129 yards rushing. With both Wilfork and Mayo out, they ought to be able to get even more out of the ground game this time.
Running back Chris Ivory complained earlier in the week that the team needs to run the ball more and he could get his wish. Ivory himself should see more carries as Mike Goodson is out for the year with torn knee ligaments. Though he appeared in just two games this season, Goodson played well in limited action and Ivory will need to make up for the lost production.
New England could also be without cornerback Aqib Talib. He re-injured his right hip last Sunday and missed two days of practice this week. Should Talib not play, the Pats would be without their three best players on defense.
Quarterback Geno Smith threw three fourth quarter interceptions in his first start against the Patriots and could benefit a great deal if Talib is forced to sit this one out. Talib has done a great job of shutting down receivers this season, and with the Jets dealing with personnel issues of their own, the rookie will need all the help he can get.
Gang Green does not expect wide receiver Santonio Holmes to be available and the team placed Clyde Gates on injured reserve Tuesday. David Nelson saw limited action in practice Thursday and his status is unknown. With tight end Kellen Winslow missing his second game due to suspension, Smith will need guys like Jeff Cumberland and Stephen Hill to step their games up and hold onto the football.
Injuries have ravaged both teams through the early stages of the season. Considering how hard the Patriots have been bitten by the injury bug, Belichick has earned every penny in somehow leading his team to a 5-1 start. The Pats could just as easily have three or four losses but somehow always find a way to win. With the imminent arrival of Gronkowski, the AFC East leader just got even tougher to beat.
The Jets shot themselves in the foot repeatedly the last time these two teams met. Unable to take advantage of a shorthanded New England lineup, they dropped six passes and turned the ball over four times en route to an ugly, rainy 13-10 loss.
If the Jets want to avoid another defeat, they must find a way to stop Gronkowski and cut down on the self-inflicted mistakes. Following Ivory's advice and relying on the running game against a weakened New England front seven, and in the process, keeping Brady and Gronkowski off the field, could go a long way in doing so and securing the win.