The AFC race just got a lot more interesting -- perhaps not interesting to you if holding a New England Patriots ticket to win the conference title.
Can there be any argument that the second-most important player on the New England Patriots is tight end Rob Gronkowski? He's quite possibly the best receiving tight end ever and probably shatters every record for that position if he stays healthy. Alas, Gronk is a physical dude, which is what makes him so great but also take a toll on his body.
Gronkowski missed the Patriots' game in San Francisco in Week 11 with some sort of lung injury, but he was able to return last week against the Jets. However, he left that game with a back problem. I remember watching the Sunday night pregame and Mike Florio, as good an NFL reporter as anyone, saying the injury wasn't thought to be serious. I obviously follow this type of thing all week, and while Gronk hadn't practiced early in the week there didn't seem to be any major concern.
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Then, boom: Thursday it was announced that Gronkowski was set for Friday surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back and that his season is surely over. Oh, it's possible he might get back for the Super Bowl, but that seems like wishful thinking with that sort of injury. You don't mess with a back injury -- look what happened to Texans star J.J. Watt earlier this year when he rushed to return from a back issue.
If I'm Gronk, I'm not coming back this year. He has had two previous surgeries to repair herniated discs in his back -- in 2009, when he was at Arizona and missed the entire season, and in 2013 with the Patriots, he underwent surgery in June and didn't return until Week 7. You name the statistic, and Tom Brady's numbers are significantly better with Gronk on the field since Gronkowski came to the NFL in 2010.
When Gronkowski and fellow tight end Martellus Bennett were both healthy, the Patriots were primarily a two-tight end offense this year. That's not really feasible now as the team's No. 3 tight end is Matt Lengel, who has played in one career game and is a blocker (the Pats traded a quality tight end, A.J. Derby, to Denver in October). Bennett is a good player and the Patriots are lucky they swindled the Bears to get him this offseason, but there's no sugarcoating this loss. It brings the Pats back to the field some in the AFC. They are still +110 favorites at BetOnline, but I'm feeling much more confident now if I'm the Raiders, Chiefs, Steelers or Broncos.
New England is still a sizable favorite Sunday vs. the Rams, and Gronk's injury shouldn't change that result. Here are some line moves or potential game-changing injury notes for Week 13.
Broncos at Jaguars (+3.5, 40): This line has dropped a point and the total three. The Jags are the biggest home dogs on the board Sunday, and I give them a decent chance of the upset -- despite losing six in a row overall and five straight at home -- after Denver played such a physical, draining game in its loss late Sunday night to Kansas City in overtime. And the Broncos won't have starting quarterback Trevor Siemian, who played great vs. the Chiefs. So it's rookie Paxton Lynch. He was solid in relief of Siemian in Week 4 against Tampa but struggled as the starter the next week in a loss to Atlanta. Jacksonville will be without running back Chris Ivory, and his co-No. 1 T.J. Yeldon is also hurting but more likely to play than Ivory. If not, we could be looking at Denard Robinson. Also out for the Jags is No. 2 receiver Allen Hurns.
Lions at Saints (-6, 53.5): New Orleans opened at -4.5. This has the highest total on the board and probably will be a shootout between Matthew Stafford, the king of the fourth-quarter comeback, and Drew Brees, yet again the NFL passing yardage leader. That Brees (3,587 yards) takes another passing title is -150 at Bovada this week with Kirk Cousins (3,540) at +300 and Matt Ryan (3,516) also at +300. How can you bet against Brees? He has won the yardage title a record seven times and the past three seasons. With 413 yards Sunday, Brees would become the first QB in NFL history to record 4,000 passing yards through his team's first 12 games of a season twice in his career. Stafford, meanwhile, has led seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime in 2016. One more gives him the single-season league record since the 1970 merger. One key injury to watch here: Saints running back Mark Ingram hadn't practiced through Thursday due to a toe injury. He had a monster game last week vs. the Rams.
Redskins at Cardinals (-2.5, 49): If Arizona has any shot at returning to the playoffs, it has to win out. But it's crucial to Washington as well as the Redskins are wild card or bust with the NFC East title out of reach. The Redskins, however, are likely to be without excellent tight end Jordan Reed. He's dealing with a shoulder injury. Reed has 59 catches for 630 yards and five scores. While Arizona's Carson Palmer is having a disappointing season, 33-year-old Larry Fitzgerald, who has made some noise about retiring, is having a tremendous year with 78 catches for 802 yards and five scores. With seven catches here, Fitz (1,096) would pass Hall of Famers Cris Carter (1,101) and Marvin Harrison (1,102) for the third-most career receptions in NFL history. I think Jerry Rice's NFL record of 1,549 catches is safe forever. Fitzgerald is second in the league in catches behind Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown (82). Bovada offers a prop on whom wins that crown: Brown (-200), Fitzgerald (+275) or Tampa's Mike Evans (+500), who has 73. Have to go Brown there.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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