There was Rob Gronkowski, the NFL’s best tight end and Tom Brady’s only real receiving threat remaining, getting carted to the locker room, shortly after he writhed on the snow-covered turf, his right leg in pain.
Earlier in the evening, another important member of the New England Patriots, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, departed with a knee injury.
Sure, the immediate impact of New England’s 30-24 overtime loss at the Denver Broncos was that it ended the reigning Super Bowl champion’s perfect run after a 10-0 start and left the Carolina Panthers as the league’s only unbeaten team.
Of more down-the-road significance Sunday night, however, will be the status of the man everyone calls “Gronk” — as it is, Brady was without receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola and running back Dion Lewis, all sidelined with injuries — and Hightower, a key part of Bill Belichick’s defense.
This thriller of a game had a bit of everything, including a wild last 75 seconds or so of regulation and a sudden end to OT:
— a debatable officiating call on a defensive back in the end zone that helped set up Denver’s go-ahead score in the fourth quarter;
— that TD, which came on a pass from Brock Osweiler, filling in for Peyton Manning and making his second career start;
— a hurry-up drive led by Brady that produced a 47-yard, last-second, tying field goal;
— a bizarre sequence right before that kick that involved an injured Broncos player, an “excess timeout” ruling against the hosts and time (properly) running off the game clock that left Belichick cursing;
— a 48-yard touchdown run by C.J. Anderson about 2 1/2 minutes into overtime, his second score of the game, to help Osweiler improve to 2-0 and the Broncos get to 9-2.
But what might be remembered most about it all was Gronkowski’s latest in a long series of injuries.
“He’s been through a lot. He’s a tough guy. Hopefully it’s not too serious. We’ll see,” Brady said. “But all of our fingers are crossed.”
In case you missed it, here are the other top topics after the NFL season’s 12th Sunday:
HEADY STUFF: A week after Rams quarterback Case Keenum stayed in a game without being checked for a head injury despite appearing staggered when his helmet slammed against the ground, Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger reportedly made it known that he was feeling concussion symptoms after a helmet-to-helmet hit and left Pittsburgh’s 39-30 loss to Seattle. That is what the NFL says it wants players to do — and certainly leaves less room for the teams themselves and doctors and “spotters” to fail to notice potential concussions, as happened with Keenum.
FIRST-PLACE LOSERS: The New York Giants entered the day with a chance to begin pulling away in the NFC East. Instead, they “sleptwalked,” to use coach Tom Coughlin’s term, in a 20-14 loss at the Washington Redskins. And so, with five games left, the Giants and Redskins are both 5-6, sharing first place in their downright mediocre division. The Eagles are 4-7; the Cowboys — without Tony Romo for the rest of the season — are 3-8. “We’re just in the driver’s seat right now,” Redskins defensive end Jason Hatcher said. “We’ve just got to continue winning games and driving the car — right into the playoffs.”
SURGING: Written off more than a month ago, the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans suddenly matter at 6-5. The Chiefs have won five games in a row without injured running back Jamaal Charles, thanks in large part to Alex Smith’s turnover-free stretch. And the Texans have won four in a row, led by J.J. Watt and his league-high 13 1/2 sacks. Going the other way: the Atlanta Falcons, who have lost four in a row and five of six to drop to 6-5, thanks in large part to Matt Ryan’s sloppy play.
BIG 4-0: Matt Hasselbeck is 4-0 for the Indianapolis Colts this season, making him only the third QB (Brett Favre and Warren Moon are the others) to win four consecutive starts after turning 40.
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