Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 12/28/12

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 02: Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots celebrate after teaming up for a first quarter touchdown against the New York Giants on September 2, 2010 at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Christmas has come and gone and we’re heading full steam into the new year with plenty of chips left to fall in the NFL playoff picture. The Falcons reign supreme atop the NFC standings, but beyond them there isn’t much else settled. As for the AFC, the teams are set but it’s anyone’s guess as to how the top four seeds will end up. The Patriots are in an interesting position, much like their two counterparts vying for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. New England is still in competition with the Broncos and Texans for a first-round bye in the postseason, but the Pats can finish in any of the top four spots depending on Sunday’s outcomes. Rob Gronkowski‘s health should be a factor in the Patriots’ game against the Dolphins on Sunday, and could be an even bigger one in the playoffs depending on how effective he is. With him on the mind already, let’s take a peek into Santa Gronk’s mailbag and see what sort of questions people have about the Patriots this week. Are the Patriots gonna play Gronk vs Dolphins? We don’t want to start the playoffs with a rusty Gronk! Lemme know your thoughts, we’re going to the game! – @hossdaboss74, via Twitter Happy to hear you’ll be taking in the game live, although it might get a little wet out there. I got a bunch of questions on Gronk this week, and I did write about his status after listening to Bill Belichick‘s comments on Wednesday. The reality is that even though Gronk has been practicing with the team for close to two weeks now, he still hasn’t been medically cleared by the team doctors, which is likely more precautionary than anything. If he is cleared by Sunday, I’d expect him to get some good reps. If not, I would put good money down that he would be ready by the first playoff game, whenever that happens to be. Is it safe to assume that Aqib Talib and Rob Gronkowski are the two most important Patriots not named Tom Brady? – Kris Kauffman Given the way both the offense and defense has played without both of them, I’d have to lean toward yes on your theory, Kris. Gronk is a vital part of the Patriots’ offense and Tom Brady‘s primary target down in the red zone, but without him they’ve had a little trouble crossing the goal line — well, a little more than they’re used to. With Gronkowski back in the fold, Brady can go back to his usual routine and maybe we’ll see a few more Gronk spikes. Aqib Talib, on the other hand, hasn’t looked like a shutdown corner for much of his time in a Patriots uniform, but boy is that defense different without him. He’s got the skills of a No. 1 corner, and his ability to lock down one side of the field has given the Patriots some flexibility in the secondary and allowed them to be more aggressive with the front seven. Both guys will be integral to any run the Patriots might make in the postseason, which could take them all the way to New Orleans. What’s the likelihood of Wes Welker getting the franchise tag again this offseason? – @MrTICgamer, via Twitter Well, this is a question that people have seemed keen on since Wes Welker signed his franchise tender over the summer. Welker is an important piece to this Patriots offense, and he is definitely a valuable asset. But the question remains: how valuable? A second franchise tag comes with a 20 percent pay raise, meaning Welker would make more than $11 million for next season. Handing over that sort of salary doesn’t seem like a very Belichickian thing to do, plus it would completely defeat the purpose of not agreeing to Welker’s contract demands last season. The outlook appears bleak, as I don’t see the Patriots franchising Welker again, at least not at that hefty number. A contract agreement is a definite possibility, but with another 100-catch season under his belt, I’d guess Welker’s contract demands couldn’t have changed very much. The unfortunate reality may be that Welker is just too expensive and he goes elsewhere to get his money. The Patriots would miss his production, but they might just be better off finding another slot receiver and spending that money on someone one. Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.
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