Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has accounted for a team-high 19 percent of quarterback Tom Brady’s targets in the 2017 season, including the playoffs. (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)

The New England Patriots’ passing game lost a key cog in the AFC championship game when tight end Rob Gronkowski was knocked out with a concussion after he took a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jacksonville Jaguars safety Barry Church late in the second quarter Sunday.

While he has two weeks to recover and be cleared by the NFL’s concussion protocol, his availability for the Super Bowl may not even matter — which is odd to say, considering his prominence in the Patriots’ offense.

Before his exit, Gronkowski accounted for a team-high 19 percent of quarterback Tom Brady’s targets in the 2017 season, including the playoffs, and a quarter of the team’s receiving yards. He also was responsible for more than 18 percent of the team’s yards after the catch, also a team high.

In the divisional round against the Tennessee Titans, Gronkowski caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown, giving him at least one touchdown in six consecutive playoff games. Gronkowski was a matchup nightmare in that game, lining up as a traditional tight end, as a slot receiver and out wide along the sideline, making a catch against three members of the Titans secondary. He went 4 for 4 for 41 yards and a score against Pro Bowl and first-team all-pro safety Kevin Byard.

Losing such a productive player obviously hurts New England’s offense. Since 2010, the Patriots offense is much more efficient with Gronkowski than without him. For example, the team scored 2.9 points per drive with its star tight end, compared with 2.3 without him. Its red-zone efficiency, goal-to-go efficiency and expected points per game via the pass are all noticeably better with Gronkowski on the field.

However, New England remains an elite offense even in his absence.

The Patriots’ scoring rate of 2.3 points per drive without Gronkowski would tie with the Los Angeles Rams for the third-best offense in 2017. Their 58 percent red-zone efficiency would rank ninth and be well above average (53 percent). The Patriots scoring six points per game more than expected after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each throw would rank fifth. That’s after coming down from a gaudy 11.5 with Gronkowski.

2010 to 2017 seasons,
including playoffs
Points
per drive
TD
rate
Red-zone efficiency Goal-to-go efficiency Expected points per game
via the pass
With Gronkowski 2.9 32% 67% 80% plus-11.5
Without Gronkowski 2.3 23% 58% 75% plus-6.0

Receivers Brandin Cooks and Danny Amendola stepped up big against the stout Jaguars defense. Cooks caught six of eight targets for 100 yards, and Amendola caught seven of nine targets for 84 yards and two touchdowns. That gave Brady a 150.1 passer rating on those throws, against the league’s best pass defense (70.3 passer rating against, including the playoffs). Cooks is also a deep threat, catching 17 of his team-high 41 targets traveling at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage, three of those for touchdowns. Only Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers saw more deep targets (44).

In addition to Cooks and Amendola, Brady can target receiver Chris Hogan, plus running backs Dion Lewis, James White and Rex Burkhead. Hogan caught 34 of his 59 targets for 439 yards and five touchdowns, a career high, during the regular season and has nabbed three of eight in the playoffs for 24 yards and a score. Brady has a passer rating of 109 in 2017 (including the playoffs) when targeting a running back coming out of the backfield, second only to Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins (110.4). And all three of New England’s primary pass-catching backs have produced above-average yards per route run.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the effect Gronkowski has on the running game. Per the game charters at Pro Football Focus, he was rated the second-best run-blocking tight end, with the team averaging 4.1 yards per carry with five touchdowns when running behind him. His backup, Dwayne Allen, ranked No. 3 for run-blocking among tight ends, so that drop wouldn’t be as severe as some might think, should Gronkowski miss the Super Bowl.

The bottom line: This team is great with Gronkowski but also very good without him, and the Patriots would still have more than enough weapons to defeat the Eagles in the Super Bowl if he’s unable to suit up.

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