Cow­boys head­line teams win­ning with­out in­jured stars

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY SCHUYLER DIXON

FRISCO, TEXAS | Dak Prescott’s job was to win with­out Tony Romo when the Dal­las Cow­boys lost their 10-year start­ing quar­ter­back to a pre­sea­son back in­jury af­ter go­ing 1-11 with him side­lined last sea­son. Prescott was so good, Romo never got his job back. “This is one of the finest sea­sons you’ve seen as a rookie quar­ter­back prob­a­bly in the his­tory of the NFL,” 14th-year Dal­las tight end Ja­son Wit­ten said.

With the rookie sig­nal-caller, the Cow­boys won 11 straight games and se­cured the top seed in the NFC — the most im­pres­sive feat of the sea­son in a year full of teams that thrived or at least sur­vived with­out in­jured stars in 2016.

NO GRONK, NO PROB­LEM: Put New Eng­land on that list. The Pa­tri­ots were on their way to a play­off spot when three-time All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski had sea­son-end­ing back surgery in early De­cem­ber. But Tom Brady and Bill Belichek kept win­ning. They are 4-0 with­out Gronkowski and con­trol the race for the top seed in the AFC go­ing into the fi­nale at Mi­ami.

Brady also lost a trusted re­ceiver in Danny Amendola to an an­kle in­jury on Dec. 4. With jour­ney­man tight end Martel­lus Ben­nett fill­ing in for Gronkowski, and vet­eran Chris Ho­gan and rookie Mal­colm Mitchell do­ing the same at re­ceiver, the Pa­tri­ots keep rolling.

Ben­nett has 52 catches for 668 yards and six touch­downs.

“He’s done a great job and he’s been out there ev­ery week to com­pete,” Brady said. “He’s a very tough guy. When you see him, he’s 6-foot-7, 280, I mean, he doesn’t back down from any­body.”

Ho­gan and Mitchell have com­bined for more than 1,000 yards and eight touch­downs, four apiece.

“It says a lot for a rookie to be play­ing his best in De­cem­ber,” Brady said of Mitchell. “It speaks to what he’s all about, his mind­set, his char­ac­ter, his de­ter­mi­na­tion.”

J.J. WHAT? The Hous­ton Tex­ans lost three-time De­fen­sive Player of the Year J.J. Watt to a back in­jury af­ter just three games. But they moved 2014 top over­all pick Jade­veon Clowney from out­side line­backer to de­fen­sive end to fill the hole and made the playoffs for the sec­ond straight sea­son.

Clowney has thrived in a break­out sea­son with a ca­reer-high six sacks and 16 tackles for losses, fourth in the NFL en­ter­ing the fi­nal week­end. Hous­ton’s de­fense has propped up an of­fense that strug­gled un­der ex­pen­sive free agent Brock Osweiler, who was benched.

NO PETER­SON, NO BRIDGE­WA­TER: Other teams looked, for a mo­ment, like they could over­come miss­ing stars only to fall back to Earth. Min­nesota reached 5-0 de­spite the loss of quar­ter­back Teddy Bridge­wa­ter to a dev­as­tat­ing left knee in­jury in a non­con­tact drill dur­ing pre­sea­son prac­tice, and a right knee in­jury to run­ning back Adrian Peter­son in Week 2. But the Vik­ings couldn’t sus­tain it even though Sam Brad­ford filled in well for Bridge­wa­ter fol­low­ing a trade.

An of­fen­sive line that lost sev­eral starters couldn’t pro­tect Brad­ford or cre­ate much room for Peter­son’s re­place­ments, Jer­ick McKin­non and Matt Asi­ata. The Vik­ings had al­ready faded by the time Peter­son re­turned Dec. 18 against In­di­anapo­lis, and they lost again.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Rob Gronkowski had sea­son-end­ing back surgery ear­lier in the month, but the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots are still 4-0 with­out the three-time All-Pro tight end.

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