FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Next man up?

The New England Patriots do that better than anyone else in the NFL. How else do you describe their 10-3 record, their five come-from-behind victories this season, the latest coming Sunday when Tom Brady threw two touchdown passes in the final 61 seconds to beat the Cleveland Browns 27-26?

But that tenet is going to be severely tested now.

Tight end Rob Gronkowski is down. He left the game with 8:17 left in the third quarter after taking a hit to his right knee from Cleveland defensive back T.J. Ward.

Multiple media reports indicate that he suffered a torn ACL and that his season is over.

The Patriots, of course, only announced that he was taken to the hospital for observation and evaluation. Asked in his press conference if Gronkowski’s injury tempered the comeback, Bill Belichick simply said, “Any time a player gets hurt, you never like to see that. I don’t even know what the extent of his injury is yet, so you don’t want to jump to conclusions with that.”

This much we know: Other than Brady, the 6-foot-6, 265-pound Gronkowski was the most valuable player on this offense. His presence and ability not only gave Brady the ultimate weapon, but opened up the field for everyone else.

In the six games he missed while recovering from offseason surgeries to his right forearm and back, the offense was average at best, sometimes below.

During that string, Brady was completing under 60 percent of his passes while the team was averaging 20.3 points per game. In the six games Gronkowski had played entering Sunday, the Patriots had averaged 32.8 points, Brady had thrown 11 touchdowns and got his completion percentage up over 60 percent. Gronkowski had caught 37 passes for 561 yards (a team-leading 15.1 yards per catch) and scored four touchdowns.

So when he went down, the folks sitting in the chill of Gillette Stadium got a little colder. And when the replay of the hit was shown on the video board, there was a collective gasp.

Obviously the Patriots have other weapons, but their chances of winning the Super Bowl just took a huge hit.

And they know it.

“It hurts to see any of these guys go down,” said Brady. “Certainly with Gronk, and we’ve sustained some pretty big injuries this year with really important, critical players, so we’ve just got to keep bouncing back.

“No one feels sorry for the Patriots. I think we all feel sorry for Rob, but I don’t think anyone feels sorry for the Patriots. We’re with (Gronkowski). We support him.”

Gronkowski had to be helped off the field by Matthew Mulligan, the Maine native who is the only healthy tight end left on the Patriots roster, and onto the medical cart, where he was transported away.

Before he left, players from both teams came by to say their respects, including Ward.

“There was a lot of respect paid there, Cleveland too,” said Mulligan, who stood over Gronkowski nearly the entire time he was on the field. “I mean, when you have a good player like that go down, and with all the struggles he’s gone through already, to have something like that happen, I think it’s catastrophic and everybody feels it.”

Mulligan wouldn’t say what was spoken to Gronkowski. But the former UMaine Black Bear knew it was important to be with him as he lay on the ground.

“He’s just my buddy, I know he would do the same for me,” said Mulligan. “Obviously (there was) a lot of emotion there from him and for me. I’ve seen him work so hard to come back from the other things he’s come back from. I just wanted to be there in any way I possibly could. Sometimes it’s just nice to have familiar faces around and just anything I could do at that point for him, whatever, I was trying to do it.

“You spend so much time with these men on this team, a lot of times more than your family, that when something happens that’s out of the ordinary and it’s a difficult situation, you feel for him,” Mulligan continued. “It’s just like your brother. I can honestly say it was very difficult to watch but that’s why you go over and try to pick him up anyway you possibly can.”

Ward said he wasn’t trying to hurt Gronkowski, just tackle him. And in the new NFL, where high shots may end up costing penalties, he aimed low.

“If I were to hit him up high, there’s a chance I would be fined, so I was just being safe,” he said. “Gronk’s a big dude, he’s not small by any means. It just makes it difficult. My intention is not to hurt anyone, that’s not what this game is about and that’s not how I play.”

The Patriots know this. They also knew there was a lot of game left to be played. They were trailing 12-0 at the time. There was no time to mourn Gronkowski’s injury.

“He wouldn’t want us to just sit there and not play so you keep playing and try to get a win for him,” said safety Devin McCourty.

Asked how this team can keep replacing key players. McCourty said the Patriots have no choice.

“I mean, and that’s what it’s about,” he said. “Just like when Rob’s on the field, it’s (about) the next play. It can’t be, ‘This one’s over,’ and us panicking and saying this season is over. We’ve got to keep playing.”

Next man up.

Mike Lowe can be reached at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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