FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Browns safety T.J. Ward followed the rules, and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski left the field on a cart.
Gronkowski caught a 21-yard pass down the left seam Sunday with 8:17 left in the third quarter. Ward, playing deep safety, went low to make the tackle and got Gronkowski directly on the right knee.
Gronkowski couldn’t put weight on the leg, and the Patriots reportedly fear he has a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Ward said he purposely went low because it’s illegal to hit a receiver in the head and neck.
“When they set the rule, everyone knew what was going to happen,” Ward said after the 27-26 loss. “This can happen if you have those types of situations. It’s pretty much inevitable and they forced our hand with this one.”
Ward was fined as a rookie for a hit to the head of Bengals receiver Jordan Shipley. As the rules have become stricter, he’s tried to adjust.
“I’ve been fined three times, and I don’t like playing for free,” he said. “If you go ask anybody in this league would they like to play for free, no. Repeat offenders, they’re starting to suspend people for the year. I can’t risk that. I won’t risk that. And I’ve got to play within the rules, point-blank.”
Ward, along with nose tackle Phil Taylor, shook Gronkowski’s hand before he was driven off the field. Ward, who said he prayed for Gronkowski when he saw him down, wasn’t sure if Gronkowski accepted his well-wishes.
“My intention is never to hurt anyone. That’s not what this game is about,” Ward said. “That’s not how I play. I hate to see guys go down with any type of injury. I just wanted him to know whether he accepted it or not, it wasn’t an intentional hit to injure him.
“He’s in a tough spot. I wouldn’t expect him to just be accepting, but I had to send that gesture regardless. I hope he heals right. I don’t know what happened, but I hope everything is OK with him and he has a good recovery. I’ve got to play football, man.”
Gronkowski didn’t have a catch in the first half, with Ward sharing the coverage duties. Quarterback Tom Brady overthrew Gronkowski deep on the first play with Ward trailing, then threw a short incompletion on the second play with Ward tight. Gronkowski caught two passes for 32 yards and drew a pass interference on Ward on the play before the injury.
“We love him and he’s a big part of this team,” Brady said of Gronkowski. “They make the rules and you try to play within them. You can’t hit in the head, so you’ve got to … Those guys, they’re lowering their target area. It’s unfortunate to see anyone get hurt.”
A FIRST FOR EVERYTHING
According to Patriots historian Bob Hyldburg, New England had never recovered an onside kick and then scored on the ensuing possession to win the game. Kyle Arrington recovered Stephen Gostkowski’s dribbler down the middle with a minute left, setting up Brady for the deciding touchdown drive.
“The way we practiced it, I don’t think he’s ever kicked it that good,” special teamer Matthew Slater said.
The Patriots lined up six players to the right of Gostkowski and four to the left. The Browns were split on each side, with the middle empty. Fozzy Whittaker and Tashaun Gipson ran over from the left of the defense after the kick as Gostkowski jogged beside the ball, and the ball bounced off Whittaker before it reached the required 10 yards.
“We just got outflanked,” Whittaker said.
Coach Rob Chudzinski said his team was prepared for a middle kick.
“It was well-executed by them and they had guys there,” he said. “We had a chance at the ball. Just couldn’t come up with it.”
Left guard John Greco left the game with a knee injury and didn’t return. Chudzinski called the injury a sprain and said Greco would be further evaluated. He left the locker room in a brace.
Greco was slow to get up after the first play and hobbled back to the huddle. He remained in until the second quarter, when he was replaced by Jason Pinkston.
Pinkston, a former starter at left guard, saw his first action of the year earlier when he replaced right guard Shawn Lauvao for a bit. Pinkston started the year on short-term injured reserve with a high ankle sprain.
** Running back Willis McGahee left the game late in the fourth quarter with a concussion after a run up the middle. He rushed 14 times for 33 yards, a 2.4 average.
Chudzinski went for a 2-point conversion after tight end Gary Barnidge’s 40-yard touchdown catch with 10:15 left in the third quarter and the Browns up 12-0. A draw to fullback Chris Ogbonnaya was stuffed.
“All the studies and analytics, and all those types of things, you come up with the 2-point chart,” Chudzinski said. “And in the second half, with that particular lead at that point, you go for the two points. Knowing New England and their ability to score and score quickly, to try to get it to a two-touchdown game is critical. And at the end of the day, it didn’t matter.”
New England was unsuccessful on a 2-point try after the winning score and would’ve kicked an extra point if the game had been tied. The Patriots converted a 2-point try late in the third quarter, so it’s impossible to say the missed point didn’t matter.
** Linebacker D’Qwell Jackson got his first interception of the season.
** All three outside linebackers in the regular rotation had sacks.
Rookie Barkevious Mingo had his team-leading fifth, Jabaal Sheard had one to raise his total to 4.5 and Paul Kruger had two, including a strip-sack. He has 4.5 on the year and 20 for his career.
** Barnidge’s touchdown was the longest of his career.
HANIE OVER TANNEY
Quarterback Caleb Hanie, who arrived in Cleveland last Monday, was picked to back up Jason Campbell. Alex Tanney, who was signed Nov. 26 off Dallas’ practice squad and served as Brandon Weeden’s backup last week against Jacksonville, was inactive.
Campbell missed the Jacksonville game with a concussion and didn’t return to practice until Thursday, but Chudzinski elected to keep only two quarterbacks on the 47-man gameday roster as he’s done all year. Campbell took every snap.
Hanie has played in 11 games in six seasons, including an 0-4 record as a starter with Chicago in 2011. Tanney has never taken a snap in an NFL game.
Weeden was inactive with a concussion.
The other Browns inactives were offensive linemen Martin Wallace, Garrett Gilkey and Reid Fragel, tight end Keavon Milton and receiver Josh Cooper.
The Browns kept receiver Brian Tyms active ahead of Cooper.
Chudzinski stooped to the level of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. New England didn’t announce its lineup changes before the game, so Chudzinski did the same. The big mystery: Defensive end John Hughes started in place of Desmond Bryant (out for the year with an irregular heartbeat).
** Shane Vereen set Patriots records for catches (12) and receiving yards (153) by a running back.
** The Patriots improved to an NFL-best 47-6 in December since 2001. They are 23-2 at home in December since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002.
** Belichick extended his NFL record with an 11th straight 10-win season.