FOXBOROUGH — At least New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick doesn't have to answer — or, more precisely, not answer — questions about an undefeated season anymore.
The Patriots' quest for a second perfect regular season came to an end Sunday night with a 30-24 overtime loss to the Denver Broncos. What's worse, tight end Rob Gronkowski was injured late in the game, putting a scare into a team that had already lost many of Tom Brady's offensive weapons.
"He is the best tight end in football," Brady said. "It is so hard to see these guys get hurt this way. ... It is hard to see your friends get taken down like that. It is part of this sport and we understand that, but I also have a lot of respect for guys that take the field."
Gronkowski joins a list of injured that already included running back Dion Lewis, receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, and a slew of offensive linemen. So instead of thinking about 16-0, the Patriots can worry about playoff position.
The Patriots lead the AFC East by four games with five to play, and they could clinch their 12th division title in 13 seasons as early as Sunday. They have a one-game lead over Cincinnati and Denver for home-field advantage through the playoffs, but the Broncos now hold the tiebreaker.
"They're a great team. They (were) 10-0 for a reason," Broncos receiver Andre Caldwell said. "They're a tough win, so we feel like we'll definitely see them down the road."
Gronkowski has been one of the most productive tight ends in NFL history — when he's on the field. He was knocked out with season-ending injuries in back-to-back seasons in 2012-13, and Sunday night's hit appeared as if it could do so again.
Gronkowski remained on the turf, writhing in pain, after taking a hit on the right knee from Denver defensive back Darian Stewart with 2:49 left in regulation. The big tight end needed help to get to a cart, which carried him off the field.
But after the game he was seen walking with only a slight limp. Asked Monday if the news was encouraging, Belichick declined to give details.
"We always hope for the best for all of our players," he said. "That will never change."
Backup tight end Scott Chandler had five catches for 58 yards and a touchdown for the Patriots against Denver, by far the best performance since he joined the Patriots this season.
"We will need to rely on him quite a bit," Brady said. "He is going to be a major contributor for our team. It was good to see him do that and we will see how it will go going forward."
Chandler said the team has no choice but to move on.
"I think if you sit there and dwell on it, it might be overwhelming," he said. "But we can't do that."
Also Monday, the Patriots released receiver Chris Harper, whose fumbled fourth-quarter punt return helped the Broncos rally from a 14-point deficit.