The New England Patriots appear poised to win their ninth division title in 10 years. They'll have to finish the job largely without the services of one of the NFL's top touchdown threats.
A lengthy stretch without Rob Gronkowski begins Thanksgiving night when New England visits the rejuvenated New York Jets, who are still hopeful of preventing another coronation for their AFC East rival.
The Patriots have won 15 of the last 19 regular-season meetings including four straight, though the most recent one went to overtime as the underdog Jets fell 29-26 in Foxborough on Oct. 21.
That victory sparked the current four-game winning streak for New England (7-3), which tied a franchise record for points in a 59-24 home victory over Indianapolis on Sunday. The Patriots maintained a three-game division lead - all other teams in the East including New York are 4-6 - but they suffered a significant loss with the injury to Gronkowski.
The Pro Bowler is expected to miss four to six weeks after having surgery for a broken left forearm, which he appeared to injure while blocking on an extra point late in the win. He became the first tight end with at least 10 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons as he caught two before exiting the game.
His 10 TDs are tied for the league lead, his 748 receiving yards top all tight ends and his 53 receptions rank third at his position. Gronkowski leads the NFL with 37 touchdown catches since entering the league in 2010, and he's never missed a game.
Tom Brady's next favorite scoring target over that time span is Wes Welker with 18 TDs.
"It's part of this game," said Brady, who owns a 111.3 quarterback rating over the last four games with 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.
"He's (Gronkowski) got to do his best to get back as soon as possible, and we've got to go out there and win some games without him."
Gronkowski's injury isn't the first major one for a Patriots tight end this year, as Aaron Hernandez has missed the last three games and six this season with a sprained right ankle. Hernandez practiced on a limited basis Monday, and coach Bill Belichick said his availability could be a "game-time decision."
"(Gronkowski is) one of the best players in the league," Hernandez said. "It puts pressure on everybody. Not just one player can just replace him."
While Hernandez made five of his 17 catches this season in the Jets game last month, Gronkowski had 78 yards and two touchdowns.
That defeat seemed to send the Jets into a tailspin, as they lost to Miami and Seattle by a combined 42 points in their next two games. New York, though, looked much better in a 27-13 win at St. Louis on Sunday.
The Jets are 4-6 for the first time 2009, the year they won five of their final six regular-season games to make the playoffs before reaching the AFC championship game.
Coach Rex Ryan thinks this team is capable of a similar run. New York does have the benefit of a weak remaining schedule after this contest, with games against Arizona, Tennessee, San Diego, and Buffalo - all teams with 4-6 records - as well as a meeting with 1-9 Jacksonville.
"Right now, we're just swinging," Ryan said. "We're going to focus on our opponents, specifically, but anything we do, we're behind where we have to be. We can only focus on ourselves and just find a way to punch it. We earned where we are and we just have to find a way to punch our way out."
The win over St. Louis was New York's second turnover-free game of the season, with one of Mark Sanchez's most efficient performances playing a big role. He went 15 of 20 for 178 yards and a touchdown. It was the third game of the year without an interception for Sanchez, whose four lost fumbles include one in overtime that ended last month's loss at New England.
Sanchez, the league's 29th-rated passer, had 13 turnovers in the Jets' first nine games.
"If you really take the positives from this game, build on those, continue to get better and improve, we can become a team that just doesn't turn the ball over," he said. "It could be our identity, if you want it to be and if you work at it."
He's facing a New England defense which has forced an AFC-leading 27 turnovers, including four last week. The secondary had three interceptions of Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and returned two for touchdowns, including one by Aqib Talib in his Patriots debut. The Patriots are still allowing 289.7 passing yards a game, which ranks 30th.
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