-- DENVER -- Tucked in the protective cocoon of the New England Patriots' locker room, sealed off by team publicists who said he would not be speaking for public consumption, Rob Gronkowski delivered the most important visuals of the night. He was dressing at his locker as if nothing of consequence had just happened on the Denver Broncos' field. Seriously.
Gronkowski was packing his bag, bending over to retrieve this and that, putting on deodorant, slapping his headphones around his neck and, finally, rolling out of there in his blue sweatsuit as if he merely needed to rub some dirt on whatever minor ache was nagging at him. He hobbled a bit on his wounded right knee as he wheeled his bag toward the bus, stopping to grab a lunch bag and chat with a couple of friends. But no, this did not look like a tight end who would play his next football game in the fall of 2016.
It was a stunning sight, really, after the way Gronkowski went down in a heap in the closing regulation minutes of what would be New England's first defeat, a 30-24 overtime loss to Denver. Cut low by Darian Stewart while reaching for Tom Brady's pass, Gronkowski was left writhing in pain as team trainers surrounded him; Brady and other teammates lowered their heads. The cart was summoned, and Gronkowski was helped aboard. As he was driven toward the tunnel, it was hard to imagine a Patriots fan who wasn't beaten down by all the injuries and consumed by this one destructive thought:
Gronk is done, and so are we.
But then came the tweeted images of Gronk walking under his own power from cart to locker room. And then came the sights and (no) sounds of Gronk in that locker room, acting like a guy whose injured knee is an annoying speed bump and certainly not a sinkhole that would suck down New England's shot of winning it all.
This is what a grim-faced Brady said of another teammate added to the parade of injured stars such as Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola: "He's been through a lot. He's a tough guy, so hopefully it's not too serious. We'll see. All of our fingers are crossed. ... He's the best tight end in football. It is so hard to see these guys get hurt this way. I always have so much respect for guys that play this game because you risk a lot to play. ... It's hard to see your friends get taken down like that."
This is what ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted around the same time: "More testing likely and further updates ahead, but one source just texted this on Gronk's leg injury: 'Doesn't appear to be serious.'" If Gronkowski misses a game or two and that's it, the Patriots didn't lose much Sunday night other than a shot at another perfect regular season to bookend the one pieced together eight years ago. Of course, that 16-0 didn't get celebrated as much as it deserved, not after the New York Giants ultimately turned that 16-0 into an 18-1.
The Patriots didn't need to travel down that route again; let Cam Newton and the 11-0 Carolina Panthers shoulder the immense burden. Patriots fans only care about the two-peat, and the one for Brady's and Bill Belichick's thumbs, and all that remains intact if Gronkowski and friends make it back for the playoffs.
In fact, the way Brady played throughout the night and on that breathless, overtime-forcing drive without Gronk represents more evidence the Patriots can overcome just about anything.
Truth is Brady would have been excused Sunday night for showing up with his C-minus stuff. He was playing a road game in the snow, facing a great defense without several of his accomplished friends around to help him dissect it and likely recalling that 16-0 regular seasons aren't all they're cracked up to be.
Oh yeah, and he was trying to beat the Denver Broncos while the injured/diminished/demoted Peyton Manning watched in street clothes. Come on: If fans, sponsors and media members lost some interest in this game once Manning was ruled out, wouldn't it be human nature for Brady to subconsciously check down in the presence of Brock Osweiler? The same Denver backup Brady referred to last week as "the guy that they had in there"?
As badly as Manning wanted to be out there, Brady wanted him out there too. This is how the best of the best are wired in professional sports. If you don't think Jack Nicklaus wanted Arnold Palmer in his field, hey, go ask him.
And yet Brady played about as triumphantly as he looked in that Facebook image he posted of himself riding a not-so-bucking Bronco as he's about to unleash a pass. He absorbed violent, direct-shot hits. He threw three touchdown passes, two more than Osweiler did. He did more than enough to win a game that changed on Chris Harper's fumbled punt and on a few officiating calls that did the visitors no favors.
Not that any of it consoled him. "It always hurts to lose," Brady said.
Before the game, Brady met Manning on the field for a brief chat and half-bro-hug that fit the description of their rivalry and relationship: not overly warm enthusiasm or not overly enthusiastic warmth, take your pick. Brady was wearing the uniform of full-pads engagement, while Manning turned up in the weekend warrior's armor of jeans, Broncos pullover and cap. Too bad they couldn't have gotten after it one more time.
Manning is the greatest regular-season player in league history, or so the case goes in Gary Myers' defining book on the rivalry, "Brady vs Manning." On the flip side of the book's not-so-backhanded compliment, Brady is the greatest quarterback of all time, a yard or two ahead of his childhood idol, Joe Montana.
In other words, Brady's presence will be worth at least a touchdown or two to the Patriots until they get healthier around him. At 38, he's a year older than the retiring Kobe Bryant but in a much different place in his athletic life. Brady is still Brady. He's not chasing the ghost of what he used to be.
So if Gronkowski recovers from his snow day gone awry, this loss to the Broncos will mean nothing more than last November's loss at Green Bay. By that first playoff game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, Brady just needs his tight end to look as stunningly good as he looked on his way to the bus Sunday night.