FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Under normal circumstances, the postgame focus at Gillette Stadium Sunday would have been on the second rather incredible home comeback by the New England Patriots in the last three weeks.
But these weren’t normal circumstances, and the entertaining if improbable 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns was a secondary topic soon after Sunday’s game ended.
The Patriots lost Rob Gronkowski, their star tight end and quarterback Tom Brady’s preferred target, to what appears to be a serious right knee injury.
“I don’t know what the circumstances are but we’re right there with him,” Brady said after Gronkowski was taken to a local hospital after being carted off the field following a low hit by Browns safety T.J. Ward in the third quarter. “We love him. He’s a big part of this team.”
Gronkowski reportedly suffered a torn ACL when Ward put his helmet directly on Gronkowski’s right knee to make a tackle. An MRI slated for Monday is expected to confirm the in-game diagnosis.
On Nov. 24, the Patriots rallied from a 24-0 halftime deficit, beating the Denver Broncos when a Ryan Allen overtime punt was allowed to hit the ground by Denver’s Wes Welker. The ball bounced off Broncos’ gunner Tony Carter. The Patriots recovered and won on a field goal.
Sunday, the first successful Patriots onside kick since 1995 — against the Cleveland Browns — became successful because the Stephen Gostkowski’s bouncer hit Cleveland running back Fozzy Whittaker before it went 10 yards, allowing the Patriots’ Kyle Arrington to recover. That led to the winning touchdown.
Down 26-14 with 2:39 left, Brady threw two touchdown passes in a 30-second span — a 2-yarder to wide receiver Julian Edelman and a 1-yard rocket to wideout Danny Amendola. After the Edelman catch, Browns safety Jordan Poyer hit the “defenseless receiver” putting the ball at the 50 for the kickoff. The onside kick moved the ball to the 40.
“I was trying to pick up a block and the ball was rolling,” Whitaker said of the play the Patriots call “Middle Bunt.” “We were just outnumbered.”
“It was a perfect kick by Stephen,” said special teams captain Mathew Slater.
A 10-yard pass to Amendola moved it to the 30. Brady tried to hit rookie wide receiver Josh Boyce in the end zone and cornerback Leon McFadden was hit with what appeared to be a questionable interference call.
“I didn’t feel like there was pass interference,” said McFadden.
The Amendola TD followed with 31 seconds left.
Billy Cundiff’s 58-yard field goal came up short as time expired, moving the Patriots to 10-3, with their 11th straight 10-win season.
The Patriots, who visit Miami next week, are three games ahead of the Dolphins. The magic number is one for the Patriots to clinch their fifth straight AFC East title.
But the rest of the 2013 season will likely be played without Gronkowski.
Playing in his seventh game after returning from offseason back and forearm surgeries, Gronkowski’s right leg was clobbered by Ward in the third quarter and had to be carted off the field. TV cameras captured Gronkowski yelling “my leg.”
Players on both teams, including Ward, shook hands with Gronkowski after he was helped onto the cart. Gronkowski waving his right arm overhead to the crowd as the cart drove off.
Ward, noting the league’s crackdown on high hits, said that caused him to go low.
“It was a decision I made, just to make a tackle on a big man,” Ward said. “Unfortunately, he got hurt. If I would have hit him up high, there’s a chance I would get fined and all that other stuff. So, I’m just being safe.”
Brady had 95 yards passing and a passer rating of 31.7 in the first half. He finished 32-for-52 for 418 yards (his sixth 400-yard game) and a 91.7 rating. He threw an interception and lost a fumble.
Browns quarterback Jason Campbell, playing after missing last week’s game with a concussion, threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns for the Browns.
Cundiff kicked first-half field goals of 43 and 37 yards as the Browns, who had allowed 100 points during a three-game losing streak but played strong defense most of the way Sunday, fell to 4-9.
Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon, looking for his third straight 200-yard game, had seven catches for 151 yards to become Cleveland’s all-time single-season leader in receiving yards. The first player ever with back-to-back 200-yard receiving games had an 80-yard catch and run for a touchdown.
Tight end Jordan Cameron had nine catches for 121 yards and a late touchdown.
Gostkowski kicked a 50-yard field goal with 5:43 left and running back Shane Vereen had game highs of 12 catches and 153 yards for New England. Both set Patriots team records for a running back.