By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — You just have to feel terrible for Rob Gronkowski. Whether you’re a diehard Patriots honk or a Jets fan who sends tapes of Bill Belichick cheating to the league office every week, it’s impossible to not feel sympathy for Gronk.

The kid — hard to believe, but he’s still just 24 years old — suffered another devastating injury, this one reportedly a torn ACL that will end his season and likely make him a candidate for the PUP list to begin the year next season. He has proven to be a truly unstoppable force of nature when he’s functioning at full speed, but thanks to a busted ankle, a broken arm, surgery on his back and now a torn knee, it’s become increasingly rare that he’s healthy.

As a result, the Patriots’ Super Bowl hopes take a major dive. It’s well-documented that the Patriots’ offense is pedestrian without Gronkowski, particularly in the red zone. They will be able to compete without No. 87, but nothing will be easy. They’re not done by any stretch of the imagination, as there’s no team in the AFC that is bulletproof, and anything can happen in a cold and possibly snowy Super Bowl. But when you add Gronkowski to the list with Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, it’s a remarkably steep climb that lies ahead for the Patriots.

And even with Gronkowski, beating the lowly Cleveland Browns was a rather difficult chore on Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium. Let’s get into all of the leftover thoughts from the Patriots’ 27-26 win.

–I don’t want to hear any complaining about the pass interference penalty on Leon McFadden which gave the Patriots 29 free yards, set them up on the 1-yard line and allowed them to score the game-winning touchdown. I just don’t. For one, with the way that game was going, you can’t convince me that Brady wasn’t going to get those 30 yards in the final 35 seconds even if the penalty hadn’t been called. But more importantly, the universe is now balanced. A terrible non-call cost them in Carolina, but a terrible call helped them on Sunday. Even Steven.

–Hey, speaking of Stephen, that onside kick by Gostkowski was a picture of perfection. To give you an idea of how rare such a moment is, there’s this factoid from the Patriots: Prior to Sunday the only other time the Patriots recovered an onside kick in a victory was on Sept. 27, 1964. That one wasn’t nearly as dramatic though, as it came in the second quarter of an eventual 26-10 Patriots victory. So I hope you really soaked that one in, because chances are that you’ll never see another comeback quite like that one.

–For as much of a downer as the loss of Gronkowski is, the continued emergence of Shane Vereen is nearly as encouraging. The running back set franchise records for running backs with 12 receptions and 153 receiving yards. That included his overcoming of his strange inability to catch passes deep to the left side, as he hauled in a 50-yarder on the Patriots’ first touchdown drive. That touchdown was scored by Vereen, on the ground, as he was by far the player of the game. With no Gronk, he’ll have to bring that on a regular basis.

Shane Vereen (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Shane Vereen (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

I’ve heard a lot of people saying that Gronkowski’s injury is a result of the NFL banning defensive backs from hitting receiver’s heads. To that, I say poppycock.

T.J. Ward is 5-foot-10; Rob Gronkowski is 6-foot-6. It would be very difficult for Ward to hit Gronkowski in the head, and if he went high, there’s a good chance he would have just bounced off the monster, which is something that happens multiple times every week. Ward went low because … that’s how you take down giant men. It’s terribly unfortunate that Ward’s helmet contacted Gronkowski’s knee just as the tight end’s foot planted into the turf, but that occasionally happens in contact sports. Gronk also wasn’t a defenseless receiver — he had taken three steps before getting hit.

Blame Roger Goodell for plenty, but not this.

–Dont’a Hightower, the poor guy. He’s come under fire recently for his lack of play-making ability and his tendency to look lost in pass coverage, yet he came up with a huge forced fumble on the opening Cleveland drive. But because Jerome Boger’s crew was too whistle-happy, the play was blown dead before the fumble, it didn’t count, and Hightower was robbed of getting the first tally mark under “FF” in his career stats. Tough break. Nice play, though.

–Remember when Jordan Cameron rode on Kyle Arrington’s back like he was a big wave at Hampton Beach? Yeah, that was awesome.

Jordan Cameron (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Jordan Cameron (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman caught six passes for 64 yards, and he held on to a touchdown despite getting clocked by Jordan Poyer. Still, Edelman let another deep ball bounce off his hands, and he dropped another pass from Tom Brady early in the second quarter … and then another one in the third quarter. It’s only natural that as a player’s number of targets increases, so too will his drops. But that’s two weeks in a row where Edelman hasn’t been able to come up with a catch on a home-run pass that hit his hands. Perhaps he ought to ask Vereen how to cure the deep-ball woes.

Fortunately for Jules, Tom Brady didn’t hold a grudge for the drops.

Julian Edelman and Tom Brady (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman and Tom Brady (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

–Speaking of deep balls, how about the emergence of fullback James Develin as a deep threat? When he caught that pass on the right sideline, it looked like neither he nor Barkevious Mingo believed he was actually going to catch it. They kind of both froze and just stared at each other before Devlin realized he had to keep running. It was the most slow-motion 31-yard pickup you’ll ever see.

–I will give this much to Rob Chudzinski: Coaching in the NFL is pretty hard. But there’s no excuse for being out of timeouts late in the game like that. The Browns burned a timeout three minutes into the third quarter after Willis McGahee ran for two yards on second down. They burned their second timeout later in the third after a second-down pass. And they burned their final timeout on defense, when the Patriots had their first-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the final minute.

That left the Browns with zero timeouts for their final drive. If they had even one of those timeouts, they would have had a chance to pick up 10 more yards and therefore win the game. As it was, the clock ticked ticked ticked ticked all the way down to 1 second, forcing the Browns to try a desperation field goal.

Don’t waste your timeouts, man.

Also, don’t go for two when you’re up 12-0.

–One more piece of free advice for the Browns: Tom Brady is good — like, really good — at running QB sneaks. When it’s fourth-and-1, you might want to, — oh, I don’t know — put a body in front of the center so that you don’t just give away that first down? Perhaps you’ve never watched the Patriots play ever, so you didn’t realize that Brady is probably the most successful QB sneaker of all time, so that’s why you gave him this look:

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–The chances of the Patriots winning late in that game were, according to this graph, 2 percent.

–I thought for sure that Billy Cundiff’s kick was good. That thing was right on line, and it was a lot closer than I expected it to be. That being said, this is what Cundiff said after the game about his miss:

“If I could have that ball the rest of the year for every kick I would be extremely happy. I just know when I looked up I expected to make it. I don’t think it had any effect on the final field goal but 24 degrees and 58 yards had more of an effect on it. My calf cramped but we got it settled and it went away enough for me to go out and give it a good shot on the last field goal.”

Hey, kicker, that’s too many words. Next time go with “I missed it.”

–“Da bawwl was put at da wrong beanbag spot.” — Jerome Boger

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–Call me old-fashioned, but I yearn for the days when Bill Belichick wouldn’t even crack a smile after a victory. Anything short of a Super Bowl, Bill didn’t seem to care at all. Now he raises that fist and waves to the crowd after every home win. I understand he’s getting older and probably is taking the time to appreciate things a bit more than he used to, but I do miss stone-cold Belichick.

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–Perhaps Phil Taylor watched the Bruins and Penguins engage in horseplay and tomfoolery on Saturday night, because on Sunday, he went head-hunting on LeGarrette Blount.

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Despite the obvious intention of the 335-pound behemoth to use his head as a battering ram against Blount’s head, this play is perfectly legal in the NFL, because Blount is the ball carrier. You see, the NFL only cares about protecting brains of defenseless receivers and quarterbacks. Running backs? Beh! Fair game. Solid stuff.

–There are certain things we can all stomach as sports fans, but if there’s one thing I can’t take it’s seeing huge, giant men on the field, whimpering and screaming in pain. We saw and heard that with Rob Gronkowski, and it’s just tough to watch.

–Yeah, sometimes it’s ugly, but the Patriots are 47-6 in December since 2001. That’s insane. Put it this way: That’s three-plus seasons, and it’s like going 14-2 in every season. It’s not a coincidence that the Patriots consistently pile up victories when it comes to nut-cutting time in the season.

–I have no idea what happened before this photo was taken, but it appears as though Shane Vereen finished him.

Shane Vereen (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Shane Vereen (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

— “You, yes you, peasant lineman. Come to me and stand still. I want to climb. Good boy. Weeeeeeee!

Tom Brady (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Tom Brady (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Read more from Michael by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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