Vereen, Edelman step it up in Gronk's Absence

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There were countless times during today's contest with the Browns where it seemed like the game (and, quite possibly, the season) were in serious doubt. When Rob Gronkowski was lying on the field, clutching his knee and waiting for the cart to take him off the field to what seems to be an inevitable diagnosis of a torn ACL. When Josh Gordon took a basic slant pattern and turned it into an 80 yard touchdown, putting Cleveland up 16 with just 1:25 left in the third quarter. When the Browns capped off a 9 play, 80 yard drive with a touchdown to Jordan Cameron, making it a two score game with only 2:39 remaining.

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However, every time their backs were pushed to the wall, the Patriots turned to their two best remaining offensive playmakers: Shane Vereen and Julian Edelman. Every time, those two made crucial plays, proving to doubters in the process that the Patriots cannot be completely written off as long as those two are on the field.

How did the Patriots respond to Gordon's seemingly deflating touchdown? By feeding the ball to Vereen, who - with Gronk out - instantly becomes the Patriots biggest matchup problem for opposing defenses. Vereen was responsible for the entirety of the Pats' 3 play, 72 yard touchdown drive, which was started with a 50 yard seam route on which Vereen was simply too fast for linebacker Craig Robertson to cover.

The Patriots continued to feed Vereen on their next possession, going to the running back for four more consecutive plays. The results were 28 yards, including a 18 yard reception that eventually set up a 50 yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski.

The Browns would go on to answer with a drive of their own, culminating with a Jason Campbell touchdown pass to Jordan Cameron. This gave the Patriots the ball back with 2:39 left in the game and no margin for error. The scenario was simple: score a touchdown or lose not only the game, but also the AFC's #2 seed and a playoff bye.

With that much at stake, Tom Brady put the game in the hands of his two best playmakers, as no other skill position player touched the ball on the ensuing 11 play, 95 yard touchdown play. There was Edelman, kickstarting the drive with back to back tough catches of 23 and 19 yards. There was Edelman again, making a clutch six yard catch on 3rd and 1 to keep the chains moving. There was Vereen, consistently getting open and providing a quick, easy outlet for Brady, including a 13 yard catch that set up 1st and Goal from the 2. Finally, there was Edelman, holding onto the ball for the crucial touchdown on 3rd and Goal despite taking a hard hit (one which resulted in a questionable but costly penalty on Browns safety Jordan Poyer).

When the smoke from the celebratory musket fire finally cleared, Vereen had a new career high of 12 catches for 153 yards, along with a nice 6 yard rushing TD. Edelman had 6 catches for 64 yards and a touchdown, with 50 of those yards and the touchdown coming on the crucial drive that made it a one score game.

There will be plenty of debate after this game about two questionable calls that dramatically aided the Patriots furious comeback (although if any team deserves a good break from the officials like this, it's the 2013 Patriots). However, don't let that detract from the incredibly clutch performances put up from the Patriots top two remaining weapons. The assumed absence of Rob Gronkowski is undeniably a major blow to the Pats Super Bowl hopes, but Edelman and Vereen proved today that they will give the Patriots a fighting chance as long as they are part of the offense.