FOXBORO -- The Patriots got by for the majority of the AFC title game, against one of the best defenses in football, without their top offensive weapon. That's why their fourth-quarter comeback against the Jaguars has to rank as one of the best of Tom Brady's career.
But trying to accomplish that feat twice in as many games would be a tall task. Even for Brady.
MORE ON GRONK
Rob Gronkowski entered into the NFL's concussion protocol following a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Barry Church in the conference championship. He would not have practiced had the Patriots held a practice on Wednesday, meaning Gronkowski still has a ways to go before clearing all the necessary steps of the protocol, which we laid out here.
There's plenty of time for Gronkowski to make it through the protocol and play in Super Bowl LII, but a player's recovery from a concussion is not always a linear process, and it can be difficult to predict exactly how much time is required before a player is symptom-free.
Gronkowski is key to Patriots offensive game plans every week, but here are three reasons why it would be especially difficult to take on the Eagles without him.
1) THE PATRIOTS COULD BE SAPPED OF CERTAIN SCHEMES WITHOUT THEIR ALL-PRO TIGHT END
Brady acknowledged following the AFC title game that the Patriots essentially went without a goal line package once Gronkowski left because Dwayne Allen was their only remaining tight end in uniform. Had Jacob Hollister been available -- he was a healthy scratch -- the Patriots could've run more two-tight end looks, and perhaps Hollister will be active for the Super Bowl. But it goes without saying that neither Hollister nor Allen pose opposing defenses with the kind of quandary Gronkowski does. Would no Gronkowski mean fewer two-tight end formations? Would his absence mean greater reliance on two-back sets or three-receiver looks? And what kinds of matchups would those deployments create? The Eagles were the No. 4 scoring defense in the NFL during the regular season, and the Patriots can't exactly afford to become less dynamic and more predictable offensively sans Gronkowski. Before this year's AFC Championship, Brady went into two games this season without the 6-foot-6, 265-pounder. In those games, against Tampa Bay and Miami, the Patriots went 1-1 and scored a combined 39 points. Brady threw two touchdowns and three picks, and his rating (86.2) in those games was more than 10 points worse than his season average (97.6).
ALSO ON NBCSPORTSBOSTON.COM
2) AS GREAT THE EAGLES HAVE BEEN DEFENSIVELY, AGAINST TIGHT ENDS THEY'RE RELATIVELY PEDESTRIAN
According to Football Outsiders, Philadelphia is the No. 17 defense in the league when it comes to stopping players who play Gronkowski's position. They allowed, on average this regular season, 45.2 yards on 6.5 targets per game to tight ends. How the Eagles would try to match up with Gronkowski in the game would be fascinating. Would they send Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins after him? Would they use their "big nickel" package -- the Patriots aren't the only team that likes to play three safeties at a time -- and use Corey Graham on him in certain spots? Would athletic linebacker Mychal Kendricks get a shot? However defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz deploys his personnel, points figure to be coming at a premium in Minneapolis, and if Gronkowski isn't healthy enough to make an impact, the Patriots would be without their most dominant red-zone option. The Eagles, per Football Outsiders, are the league's seventh-best defense when it comes to defending No. 1 wideouts, and they're the best defense in the league when checking No. 2s. They're also tenth against backs in the passing game. That means New England's best option to move the football in Super Bowl LII might be with the game's best tight end.
3) IT'S UNAPPEALING TO RUN AGAINST THE EAGLES UNDER NORMAL CIRCUMSTANCES. WITHOUT GRONK, IT MAY BE DOWNRIGHT PREPOSTEROUS
Philadelphia has the best run defense in football, allowing just 79.2 yards per game on the ground during the regular season. The Eagles are the owners of a loaded front that can rotate multiple bodies on and off of the field, which leads to powerful players playing stronger for longer, which means Eagles opponents along the offensive line oftentimes find themselves a yard or two into the backfield before their running backs can even pick a lane. Either way, the Patriots may feel as though it's in their best interest to throw the football 50 times in their season finale. But if Gronkowski, one of the team's top run-blockers this season, is unavailable then any threat of the Patriots running the football consistently could be shot.