Rob Gronkowski Patriots
The Patriots will play the Denver Broncos without Rob Gronkowski. Reuters

The New England Patriots consistently have one of the best offenses in the NFL. One of the biggest reasons for that has been the play of their tight ends.

Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez were two centerpieces of the New England offenses from 2010-2012. That was not the case in the 2013 regular season. Gronkowski missed the first part of the year after multiple offseason surgeries, and he went down for good after playing just seven games because of a torn ACL. Hernandez was charged with murder in June, and released by the organization soon afterwards.

Despite losing their two offensive stars, the Patriots have managed to play very well. New England finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, which is good for second in the league. On Sunday, they’ll compete with the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.

How has the team managed to survive without Gronkowski or Hernandez?

The Patriots haven’t won because of a great defense. Their 27.8 points per game put them only behind the Broncos. The Patriots have one of the best offenses in the league, even after losing incredible production from the tight end position.

In 2011, Gronkowski and Hernandez combined to catch 169 passes for 2,237 yards and 24 touchdowns. Both players battled injuries last year, but they still totaled almost 1,300 yards for 16 scores.

A number of receivers with little-to-no track record stepped up this season to help keep the Patriots near the top of the league in scoring. Before this year, Julian Edelman had 69 catches in four seasons. Given the chance to be the team’s top receiver, he caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards. Rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins combined for 985 yards and eight touchdowns.

Most importantly, the Patriots have one of the better running attacks in all of football. Tom Brady is still an elite quarterback, but the New England offense didn’t rely on him as much as it did in recent seasons. His 25 touchdown passes was his lowest total since 2006. New England ended the regular season with 19 rushing scores, ranking them second in the NFL.

New England battled injuries at running back, but several players combined to give the club a top-10 ground game. Stevan Ridley and LaGarrette Blount both ran for just under 800 yards. Shane Vereen even opened up the season with a 100-yard performance. Vereen also provided on a boost as a receiver, such as his 153-yard effort in a tight win over the Cleveland Browns.

With Gronkowski in the lineup, the Patriots were certainly more effective. The team averaged 32 points per game when the tight end was healthy. New England’s backup, Michael Hoomanawanui, only caught 12 passes for 136 yards. Still, the team has done fine after losing two of its best players, and has a very good chance to advance to the Super Bowl.