The Patriots' hope for a Super Bowl title following the 2016 season were dealt a significant blow with the news Thursday that all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski would undergo back surgery and miss several weeks. New England is still very much a Super Bowl contender, but Gronk is a difference maker the way few non-quarterbacks can be.

He could also still return to help the Patriots, as reports have pegged his absence anywhere from three weeks to eight weeks. Given the surgical nature of the situation, it's really difficult to imagine New England bringing him back in the regular season; the Patriots are one of the few true "Super Bowl or bust" teams, and rushing Gronk back won't be in the cards.

They can clinch the division and clinch homefield throughout even without him, although that road also becomes significantly more difficult sans Gronk.

The difference this season is pretty remarkable, with Brady being a substantially better player with Gronkowski on the field than without.

2016 Comp % Yards/Game Yards/Att TD/INT
Brady with Gronk 72.9 % 327 yards 9.9 yards 12/1
Brady without Gronk 60.0% 283 yards 6.3 yards 6/0

To be clear: Tom Brady is still really good without Gronk. And this is a small sample size. Fortunately NFL research bears out the historical drop in production from Brady when Gronk is off the field.

The numbers since 2010:

2010-16 W-L Comp % Yards/Game TD/INT Passer Rating
Brady with Gronk 69-17 65.5 290.8 191/39 104.5
Brady without Gronk 12-5 57.5 257.8 30/13 84.4

The league-average passer rating from 2010-2016? 86.8.

We cannot be clear enough again: No one is saying the Pats aren't good without Gronk or that Tom Brady can't be a good quarterback without the superhuman tight end. He won several Super Bowls when Gronk was still fist-pumping at high school parties.

But Gronk is a huge difference maker. The good news for the Pats is this could be the one year you want to deal with his absence.

SportsLine's Stephen Oh ran the numbers through his projection system with a healthy Gronk and then assuming no Gronk for the rest of the season, and the Patriots take a big hit, but it's not going to ruin their chances at winning the Super Bowl.

With Gronk, New England wins the Super Bowl 31 percent of the time in his simulations. Without him, the Pats still win 24 percent of the time.

Patriots AFC Champs
Super Bowl Champs
with Gronk
49% 31%
without Gronk
42% 24%
Impact -7% -7%

Having Malcolm Mitchell starting to emerge as a red-zone threat and Martellus Bennett serving as a poor man's Gronk certainly helps. Also: Tom Brady. He's still good. Can't make that clear enough.

Plus the schedule helps New England. Look at the home stretch here -- the Denver game was close to a coin flip anyway.

WeekOpponent Win % with Gronk
Win % without Gronk
13 LAR 80% 75%
14 BAL 74% 70%
15 @DEN 57% 51%
16 NYJ 79% 74%
17 @MIA 73% 68%
Average Win %
73% 68%

The key for New England is these next two weeks. Beat the Rams (and Gronk probably wasn't playing anyway) and beat the Ravens and you're 11-2 and in a great spot, assuming Miami doesn't keep winning.

Adam Gase getting the Dolphins going plus Gronk being hurt could tighten things up significantly in the AFC East.

It's also possible the Pats end up running away with the division despite the loss of Gronk. We've seen them do it before. But we've also seen it come back to bite them once the playoffs got in full swing.