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Top Boston Sports Stories of 2013, No. 7: Patriots stung by injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, other key players

12.26.13 at 9:40 am ET
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Over the final days of the year, WEEI.com will count down the top 13 stories of 2013 in Boston sports. This is No. 7: Patriots stung by injuries to Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, other key players. To see the previous entries, click here.

In any sport, but especially football, injuries are viewed and accepted as an unfortunate part of the game. While every team has to deal with injuries, the 2013 season has been particularly cruel to the Patriots, who have had to endure the absence of some key contributors.

The Patriots lost one of their biggest offensive weapons in Rob Gronkowski to a torn ACL and MCL on Dec. 9.

The Patriots lost one of their biggest offensive weapons in Rob Gronkowski to a torn ACL and MCL on Dec. 8. (AP)

While the Patriots offense struggled to string together impressive performances for most of the first half of the season due in part to lingering injuries to players such as Rob Gronkowski, as well as the release of Aaron Hernandez, who was charged with murder, an improved defensive unit, featuring players such as Jerod MayoChandler JonesVince Wilfork and Aqib Talib gave New England hope.

Over the first five games of the year, the new and improved New England defense allowed an average of just 14 points per game. With players such as Gronkowski expected back later in the season, expectations were high for this Patriots squad, as it promised to have better balance than the last few seasons.

However, these expectations were soon dashed, as injuries to key players on the roster quickly began to pile up.

During the Patriots’ 30-23 victory against the Falcons on Sept. 29, New England lost the anchor of its defensive line, as Wilfork went down early in the first quarter after stepping on another player’s foot and was carted off the field. After the game, it was revealed that the All-Pro defensive tackle had torn his Achilles tendon and would miss the rest of the season.

The loss of Wilfork was a big hit to the Patriots defense, as the five-time Pro Bowler has been an integral part of New England’s stout defensive line since his arrival in 2004.

“I just want to thank everyone for your support and encouragement. … I know what signing up to play football means and I know the rewards and the risks,” Wilfork said in a message to his fans. “This is my job and I will switch positions for now and play the role of patient, but that is only temporary. I have so much confidence in my team and I know that they will do great and I will be right besides them maybe not in uniform but in all other ways. Thanks again.”

While the loss of Wilfork was a big blow for New England, the Patriots still had a veteran presence in the middle of the defensive line in Tommy Kelly. Signed as a free agent on April 8, Kelly was a welcome addition to the defense, slotting right next to Wilfork on the front line. In five games this season, Kelly recorded 22 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks. Unfortunately for the Patriots, Kelly also would not last the season, as the 32-year-old suffered a knee injury toward the end of New England’s 13-6 loss to Bengals. Kelly would miss the next three games before being placed on season-ending IR on Nov. 2.

With their defensive line decimated, the Patriots already were hurting before being dealt yet another blow in the following game.

During the Patriots’ dramatic 30-27 win over the Saints on Oct. 13, the Patriots lost another defensive captain, as Mayo left the game with a torn pectoral muscle. Drafted 10th overall in 2008, Mayo has been one of the most consistent linebackers in the league over the last few years, recording at least 100 tackles in four of his six seasons in New England.

Mayo, who was placed on IR on Oct. 16, was on his way to another great campaign in 2013, as he recorded 55 tackles in six games while only missing eight out New England’s 399 defensive snaps.

While the Pats defense was decimated over that three-week stretch, as the season progressed, New England began to take hits on offense.

Just two weeks after Mayo’s injury, New England lost right tackle Sebastian Vollmer for the year after he broke a bone in his right leg during a 27-17 victory over the Dolphins. A second-team All Pro in 2010, Vollmer had started every game for New England this season and was graded as the second-best right tackle in football during the first half of the campaign, according to Pro Football Focus.

As bad as all those losses were, no injury was greater than the loss of Gronkowski on Dec. 8 in the Patriots’ 27-26 victory over the Browns. After catching a pass in the third quarter, Gronkowski was hit in the knee by safety T.J. Ward, tearing his ACL and MCL in the process. Gronkowski was placed on IR on Dec. 9, ending the two-time All-Pro tight end’s season after just six games.

“Rob really wasn’€™t with us at training camp, either, so we had a lot of practice and some games unfortunately without his services in there, but it was great to have him back,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick during his weekly appearance on Salk & Holley on Dec. 9. “He’€™s a good player, a guy that everyone wants to see out there on the team. When he’€™s not there, if he’€™s not there, whoever’€™s out there, we expect them to do the best they can do.”

When looking at all of the Patriots’ injuries, most would expect that this would be a lost season — a campaign filled with more “what ifs” than wins. However, the Patriots remain one of the top teams in the AFC with an 11-4 record.

Yes, the Patriots certainly have the odds stacked against them. The defense, which has allowed both Jason Campbell and Ryan Tannehill to throw over 300 yards, needs to step up while Tom Brady will need to be near perfect to keep the offensive machine running at high gear. However, if this team has taught us anything over the years, it’s that you can never count out Bill Belichick & Co.

Read More: Boston Sports Stories of the Year 2013, Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots, rob gronkowski