By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — If you asked anybody in the Patriots organization or in the fan base at any point over the last two seasons what they’d least like to see on a football field, at or near the top of that list would be “seeing Rob Gronkowski take a shot to the knee,” “seeing Rob Gronkowski lying on the ground while screaming in pain,” and/or “seeing Rob Gronkowski on the back of a cart.” And, of course, all three of those nightmare scenarios played out on Sunday night in Denver.

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Early reports from ESPN, NFL Network and The Boston Globe indicated that the injury isn’t serious. But in the moment, it sure looked serious, as phones across New England were flooded with simple, two-word text messages: “Season over.” (My phone was also filled with some more colorful one-word, ALL CAPS text messages from friends, messages which can’t be reprinted on this family website.)

But even though it appears the Patriots and Gronkowski dodged a major bullet, the simple fact remains that the injury never should have happened.

No, that’s not an ascription of blame to the officials for that weak offensive pass interference penalty on Gronkowski on the drive prior to the injury, though we will get to that later. It is simply a question of this: Why in the world were the Patriots passing the ball?

Gary Kubiak went Full Kubiak in that fourth quarter, deciding to punt the ball back to the Patriots with just over four minutes left in the game, when New England held a four-point lead and Denver possessed just one timeout. By giving the ball back to New England, the Broncos gave the Patriots a chance to drain the final minutes of the game with just a couple of first downs.

It was a successful endeavor to start, when Tom Brady followed a short LeGarrette Blount run with a pass over the middle to Gronkowski for a gain of 14 yards and a first down. The ball was on the New England 40-yard line. It was at that point when the Patriots could have run the ball, forcing Denver to take that final timeout, before running again to get the game to the two-minute warning, and running once more. Worst-case in that situation, they punt the ball deep into Denver territory and force the inexperienced Brock Osweiler to engineer an 80-plus-yard touchdown drive with no timeouts at his disposal and less than 1:20 on the game clock. With the threat of a Denver run essentially removed, the odds would be tilted strongly in the Patriots’ favor.

For the Patriots, in that situation, running the ball was simply the smart football decision.

Instead, the Patriots passed, and you know what happened to Gronkowski. Compounding matters, on the second down play following Gronkowski’s injury, Brady again passed. It fell incomplete. The clock stopped at 2:49. The Patriots again passed on third down, this time a short completion that forced Denver to call its final timeout with 2:39 left to play.

Now, you could make the argument that if the Patriots had run the ball, it wouldn’t have mattered, considering the Broncos managed to drive 83 yards in 1:22, but that extra minute of cushion on the clock, plus the two-minute warning, (plus a bail-out defensive holding penalty on Patrick Chung), made the job sufficiently less stressful for the Broncos on that go-ahead drive. Every quarterback responds differently when those clocks start ticking in the final minute of the game, and very few are able to remain calm and composed, especially in their second NFL start, in front of a national TV audience.

Would running the ball instead of passing twice have guaranteed the Patriots a victory? No, of course not. But it was the smart thing to do. And as it turns out, it would have spared Gronkowski a right knee injury.

It was a crucial moment in the game, but it was just one of many, so let’s tear through some leftover thoughts from the Broncos’ 30-24 overtime win over the Patriots in Denver.

–Tom Brady’s face after Gronkowski went down:

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Oof.

–Let’s talk officiating, with the preemptive note that it is indeed possible to have an adult conversation about officiating in sports. You see, when you’re analyzing the game and the on-field officials greatly impact the game, you must discuss the job of those officials. It is not whining and it is not excuse-making; it is an essential element to telling the story of the game.

(If you can’t tell, the world of Twitter became a vapid cesspool of opinions late Sunday night and early Monday morning, filled with hot takes that could only be described as “fart-ish.” I’m trying to keep things above board here.)

OK, so first, 10 million Patriots fans spent the night saying that the fix was in and that Tony Corrente’s officiating crew was out to get the Patriots. I understand where the sentiment comes from, but I can assure you this: The NFL employs exactly zero officiating crews who are competent enough to pull off a proper fixed game. Just like they do when they try to perform their job under normal circumstances, they would assuredly screw that up.

So no, there is no grand conspiracy against the Patriots. There would just be too many moving parts involved for that to be the case. However, there were enough eyebrow-raising moments from Sunday night’s game to justify that outrage.

Let’s tackle them one-by-one with the new “Bogus Scale.”

Patrick Chung Defensive Holding
Bogus Rating: Real Bogus

I hated this call because in no game should an official ever insert himself into such a crucial moment of the game over such a marginal offense. Patrick Chung did get his hand on Demaryius Thomas’ shoulder, but it was not egregious, and more importantly, the officials had called zero defensive holding penalties to that point in the game. In 58-plus minutes, the officials saw zero instances of defensive holding. But with just over a minute to play, with the Broncos in the red zone looking to take a lead, it was suddenly time to throw a flag to help a receiver who played disinterested the entire night.

It was real bogus.

Missed Hands To The Face Penalty On Evan Mathis
Bogus Rating: A Little Bogus, But Barely Bogus

On the go-ahead touchdown pass, Evan Mathis decided to give Chandler Jones a taste of what he had for dinner.

Of course, sticking one’s fingers in an opponent’s mouth is typically frowned upon by the NFL. Still, I’d rather not see this one called, because again, I’d prefer to let the players decide the outcome of the game. Yet given how the game was being called on the line — notably the Tre’ Jackson holding call that eliminated a 51-yard reception to Keshawn Martin and ultimately turned Patriots points into a Patriots punt — it’s one that Tony Corrente probably should have called in the interest of consistency.

Missed Running Into The Kicker Penalty On Todd Davis
Bogus Rating: Bogus!

This penalty wouldn’t have mattered, but I mean … the guy ran into the kicker. The penalty is called “running into the kicker.” It wasn’t incidental.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Again, this one wouldn’t have changed a thing, but it was overtly missed calls like this one that lit a fire for the masses.

–That’s probably more time on officiating than I wanted to spend, and that doesn’t end the list of questionable calls. But no, this was not a concerted effort to screw the Patriots. It was just typically bad officiating that takes place in most every game these days across the league. It’s a serious problem, and no matter how many mistakes are made in nationally televised games, the NFL seems to not care all that much to remedy the issue.

–Also, it was fascinating that early in the game, an official ran to Tony Corrente to correct him on the illegal substitution penalty called on Cameron Fleming for failing to report as an eligible receiver. You might recall the Ravens’ John Urschel getting flagged for the same thing in a Monday night game last month, even though the lineman did report as eligible, a situation that caused John Harbaugh to absolutely lose his mind on the sideline.

Given Harbaugh’s history with the Patriots and eligible receiver declarations, and given the way his own team got wrongly penalized for it, you have to imagine that a number of holes were punched in the wall of John Harbaugh’s living room on Sunday night. A number of holes.

–Sports are wild because months ago, we all circled this game as the one the Patriots might lose. We thought this for a number of reasons, and none of them involved Brock Osweiler, a Rob Gronkowski injury, a Chris Harper muffed punt, or the Broncos being able to compete in cold/snowy conditions, or a Brandon Bolden touchdown reception. But that’s just #Sports.

–Sports are also wild because there is no accounting for the bounce of a prolate spheroid made of leather. That proved painfully true for New England when the Broncos recovered Harper’s muffed punt, Ronnie Hillman’s fumble, and Omar Bolden’s muffed punt. There is some ability involved –Akiem Hicks had a golden opportunity to recover that Hillman fumble — but when it comes to the bouncing of footballs, luck is the most significant factor. Sometimes it bounces your way, and sometimes it doesn’t.

–Forget the Gronkowski injury, forget the overtime loss. The most painful thing for the Patriots on this Monday morning has to be the fact that they lost a game to this guy.

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(Screen shots from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shots from NFL.com/GamePass)

I don’t want to overreact or be too much of an alarmist but I honestly am not sure the Patriots will ever be able to recover from that.

–A non-Patriots thoughts really quick: Rex Ryan, the excuse-making is unbecoming. We’re talking about replays on the video board, when you don’t have a dedicated member of your staff to watch replays? And you’re the guy who didn’t bring batteries to London for the headsets?

Very uncouth, Rextopher. Very uncouth.

–On a positive note, even without Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, the #FerociousJuke lives on!

(Screen shots from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shots from NFL.com/GamePass)

–The offensive PI calls on Gronkowski are really something else. Essentially, he’s not being allowed to fight through contact when teams decide to bump him within the allowable five-yard window. If he fights through the contact in any way this year, he’s getting called for pass interference. He’s been penalized five times for OPI this year, which is far and away more than anyone else in the league. At this point, you have to believe that in officials’ offseason meetings, Gronkowski was used as the example for an increased attention on offensive pass interference, and as a result, the tight end has been targeted by officials.

What the officials are telling Gronkowski is that if an opponent decides to play press coverage and throw you off your route, you have to allow them to do that. Considering the Patriots offense runs through Gronkowski, it could prove quite problematic in a tight game in January that resembles the one played on Sunday night.

–Brandon Bolden scored on a 63-yard reception despite not being able to see and not really catching the ball.

Brandon Bolden (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Brandon Bolden (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Impressive.

–Right now at this very moment, as you read this sentence … Tom Brady is throwing another incompletion to Scott Chandler up the right sideline. It’s an addiction, clearly, and Brady’s got the bug.

–Since when do the little slippers you get for free at the old folks’ home count as being “a legitimate cast”?

That’s a slipper, guys.

It’s a slipper.

–Did you notice that the trailer for “Concussion” aired during the game? This was a new one, too, or at least it was new to me, and it had to have Roger Goodell breaking out in hives while watching on TV. Oh boy, do I have some high hopes for the impact that movie can have on America, a lovely country that sometimes best absorbs information by way of a neatly packaged Hollywood film.

–Inspired by a postgame comment by Scott Zolak, I decided to look into the ages of NFL referees.

Tony Corrente is 64 years old. Ed Hochuli is also 64. Pete Morelli is 64. Walt Anderson is 63. Jerome Boger is 60. Walt Coleman is the longest-tenured official in the NFL, and his birthdate is impossible to find on the Internet, so it’s safe to assume he’s an old man. (UPDATE: Coleman is 63.) The age of 20-year NFL official Jeff Triplette is likewise difficult to find, but Google his name and you’ll see dozens of articles about how poorly he performs his job.

At the risk of being an out-and-out ageist, these guys are old. To expect men in their 60s to run around in freezing cold weather, in the middle of a fast, brutal sport like football, and to expect them to perform their jobs well is to be downright foolish. Yet every week around the league, that’s what the NFL puts on the field.

The solution may not be simple, but it starts with hiring full-time referees and officials, it includes thorough training processes, and it includes a much better person in charge (sorry, Dean Blandino, but I’m not sorry). Every single NFL city could list at least a half-dozen complaints about officiating every single week, and many of them are legitimate. But for the NFL, despite Roger Goodell’s repetitive words about how important officiating is, it just does not matter.

–Another stinger: Two plays prior to the bogus PI penalty on Gronkowski, Brady badly missed him wide open coming across the middle.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

The play was there. Brady just threw behind Gronkowski.

That play could have been a huge gain for New England and could have led to some points that could have put the game away. Instead, following a short pass to Bolden, the penalty on Gronkowski, and in incompletion to LaFell, the Patriots punted.

–Another missed opportunity: Demaryius Thomas bobbled a pass directly into Patrick Chung’s person in the final minutes of the game with Denver desperately driving to try to take the lead. Chung couldn’t haul it in.

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

(Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Of course, it is difficult to suddenly make a catch when you’re in the process of delivering a hit, but it was nevertheless a play that could have been made to seal a victory.

–I don’t know much. But I do know that Tony Corrente will not be receiving an adorable Christmas card from the Brady family.

Tom Brady (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Tom Brady (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

–The Patriots’ ultra-conservative approach to the end of the first half had many viewers apoplectic and befuddled about what was going on. After getting the ball with 2:07 left in the half and holding a 14-0 lead, it was dreaded double-score time. Yet instead of Brady coming out in a no-huddle spread offense, he handed it to Blount for a meager gain. After the two-minute warning, it was again a handoff to Blount. Even after the running back picked up the first down, the Patriots deliberately stepped to the line and let 10 seconds tick before … handing off to Blount. Tick tock, tick tock, another Blount run, this one letting the clock drain under a minute. A handoff to James White on third down essentially killed the rest of the clock, and the Patriots were content with heading to the locker room after really wasting a possession.

I think that sequence was simple. It was a grim reality check for a team that is lacking too many key players on offense. I think Chris Harper and Keshawn Martin are just not capable of running an up-tempo, two-minute offense with great success. This is, for at least the short term, what the Patriots will be. They will be safe. They will be, at times, boring. This is what the war of attrition looks like, and in New England, it’ll take some getting used to.

–Still, the Patriots’ remaining schedule looks like a collection of canine waste. The Philadelphia Eagles are next, and they’re impossibly worse than their 4-7 record suggests. They’ve been outscored 90-31 in their past two games. Then, it’s the Texans in a game that just got flexed to prime time. It ought to be somewhat difficult, considering Houston’s surging a bit, but that is most certainly a relative term for a team that gets six AFC South matchups on its schedule.

After that, it’s Tennessee (2-9), the Jets, and the Dolphins. The Patriots have beaten the latter two already this season, and both divisional opponents have gotten worse since their dates in Foxboro.

Add in that the Patriots are historically dominant in the month of December under Belichick, owning an absurd 54-10 record over the past 15 years, and there’s no need to panic after a loss on the road against a very worthy foe. Unless you’re a real worry wart, there’s reason enough to believe that the Patriots will finish at worst with a 13-3 record and at worst will have to travel to Denver for the AFC Championship Game. But that’s miles away, and fretting over future unknowns (what if Peyton Manning forces his way back into action on that team?!) is a waste of time.

The only lasting repercussion of Sunday’s game? We won’t be seeing another awful 16-0 banner in the corner of Gillette Stadium. That’s for the best.

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Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here. You can email him or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.