Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 5/14/13
Last season the Patriots fell just short of making their 6th Super Bowl appearance in 12 seasons. And changed the future of the entire league when Stevan Ridley took a vicious shot from Bernard Pollard upon the crown of his helmet, knocking Ridley unconscious, the ball loose, and sent the Patriots home with yet another bitter failure to end their season.  The window is rapidly closing on Brady and company, and this season may prove to be the toughest that the future Hall-of-Famer has yet faced.  Despite renegotiating and extending his contract to give the team salary cap flexibility, Brady enters 2013 with if not the weakest, the most questionable group of skill players around him since 2006 when Reche "Bug Eyes" Caldwell was the team's leading wideout.   That's not to say there isn't talent on the offensive side of the ball beyond No. 12; New England does possess the most dynamic and productive tight end pairing in the game with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.  One of the biggest offseason storylines in New England has been the health of Gronk's surgically-repaired left arm. A fourth surgery was recently scheduled to inspect the tissue around the plate to make sure that it is clear of infection, which has plagued Gronkwoski throughout the offseason.  If the area is clear, a new plate would be inserted and Gronkowski should be ready for Week 1. IF however, there remains a trace of infection the procedure becomes more invasive and could set Gronkowski's return back indefinitely.  Just how important is Gronkowki to the Patriots' success? Since being drafted in 2010, the Patriots have lost just eight of the 43 regular season games in which Gronkowski has played (an .814 winning percentage).  In games that Gronkowski has missed, the Patriots have a 4-2 record, which is a much smaller sample size but clearly demonstrates the impact the mammoth tight end has on the game.  A look at Gronkowski's season by season numbers in wins versus losses clearly illustrates the point.    RECYARDSTDSYPC2010 WINS (14)374851013.12010 LOSSES (2)561012.12011 WINS (13)6810231415.02011 LOSSES (3)22304313.82012 WINS (8)416331015.42012 LOSSES (3)14157111.2The biggest difference between the win and loss numbers is clearly Gronk's YPC. In games New England has won, Gronkowski has averaged at least a full yard more per reception than in their losses.  Last season is the most glaring example, as opposing defenses held Gronkowski's YPC to more than 4 yards less than he averaged in New England victories.  The lack of a true down field threat the past couple seasons in New England has put even more of an emphasis on Gronkowski's production, and his rough and tumble style of play.  While lacking the speed of a true down-field threat, Gronkwoski's size and soft hands make him more than capable of turning plays down field, at the expense of much smaller defensive backs.  Factoring in the loss of Wes Welker to the rival Broncos, and the release of Brandon Lloyd during the offseason, it is imperative to the Patriots' chances of success in 2013 that their most dynamic player not under center is healthy and ready to go by Week 1.  
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