The New England Patriots must get used to playing without Rob Gronkowski again.
The star tight end who missed the first six games while recovering from surgeries is done for the season after being placed on injured reserve Monday with a damaged right knee.
That experience could help the Patriots handle his absence.
"I'd like to think there's going to be some carry-over there, not only [from] the first six weeks of the season, but the entire training camp as well," coach Bill Belichick said Monday. "That's the way we practiced and played most of the year."
Gronkowski was hurt midway through the third quarter of the Patriots' 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday when he was hit on the knee by safety T.J. Ward after a 21-yard reception.
The Patriots were 5-1 while Gronkowski recovered from off-season operations on his left forearm and back. In the next six games, he led all NFL tight ends with 37 catches and 560 yards receiving and they were 4-2. But the offence was much more productive.
Gronkowski caught touchdown passes in four consecutive games before making just two receptions for 32 yards against the Browns.
He suffered a torn ACL and damaged MCL, a person familiar with the injury said Monday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the team did not release those details.
Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski said Monday he didn't know whether Ward's hit on Gronkowski resulted from a reluctance to hit a player high and possibly incur a fine for helmet-first contact.
"From my vantage point, I think he was trying to get Gronkowski down on the ground," Chudzinski said. "A big guy coming at you that way is tough to get on the ground, so I don't know that it has to do with the rules other than trying to get the guy on the ground. Certainly, we feel terrible about that [injury]. He's a great player, and [we] hope that he has a speedy recovery."
The Patriots visit Miami on Sunday.
"The thing about New England is they have an excellent offensive staff, they utilize their personnel very, very well, and they adjust," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "You have to have a big enough system offensively that you can incorporate different players throughout the course of the season."
The injury is just the latest to a key Patriots player. Defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, linebacker Jerod Mayo and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are on season-ending injured reserve. Gronkowski's injury should make it tougher for the Patriots (10-3) to hold on to the No. 2 spot in the AFC and a first-round bye. Cincinnati (9-4) is third and has beaten New England this season.
"We can't sit here and try to pretend like it's something that's easy and that we just can roll through. It's tough," special teams captain Matthew Slater said. "When you lose guys, and guys of this calibre, it makes it hard on your football team."
The Patriots signed tight end D.J. Williams to the 53-man roster. They had released him last Wednesday after signing him as a free agent on Nov. 27. Williams played sparingly in a 34-31 win over Houston.
He and Matthew Mulligan are the Patriots' only healthy tight ends. Michael Hoomanawanui missed the past three games with a knee injury.
"As far as [getting] more reps here or there, you just don't know," Mulligan said. "It's all game plan and we'll see what happens."
Mulligan has just 16 receptions in five seasons. Gronkowski set an NFL record for tight ends with 18 touchdowns in 2011.
"Unfortunately, we've had to take the field without him in the past and we've had to figure out ways to still be productive," Slater said. "We're going to have to do that again."