Gronkowski's value to New England

This has become a familiar sight for New England Patriots fans this season. AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Between the league-wide assault on Dan Marino's passing record, the Packers' pursuit of perfection and Tebowmania, the exceptional production of New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski has flown under the radar this year. Gronkowski caught two more touchdowns against Washington Sunday, giving him 15 scores on the season. That's a new record for tight ends, and there are still three games left on the slate. With Gronkowski so dominant in the red zone and Wes Welker so effective as a possession receiver, the Patriots have two-thirds of a perfect receiving trio. All they need is a deep threat. Will that weakness cost them in the postseason?

To answer that question, we have to define what a deep threat is. For simplicity's sake, we'll call a player a deep threat if he averages at least 15 yards per catch and at least 50 yards per game.

In the past five full seasons (2006-10), there have been 70 deep threats in the NFL, an average of 14 per season. Eighteen players turned the trick in more than one season; Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers did it four times in that five-year stretch.

Of the 60 teams that made the playoffs in that span, exactly half had at least one deep threat. (Some teams in and out of the playoffs had two, and the 2010 Chargers, who did not make the playoffs, had three.) That's convenient for this study, because it means there were lots of matchups pitting one team with a deep threat against an "unarmed" opposition squad. In matchups like this, the team with the deep threat went 16-12, a winning percentage of .571.

It's one thing to win wild-card games, though, and another to get to (and win) the Super Bowl. Seven of the ten Super Bowl teams in this study had deep threats, including all four teams the past two seasons. On the other hand, the 2007 Giants and 2008 Steelers managed to win the Super Bowl without a deep threat in the lineup.