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Gronk Is Just Latest to Suffer Knee Injury

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski waves as he leaves the field in a cart after being injured in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski waves as he leaves the field in a cart after being injured in the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

New York — Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots became the 40th National Football League player to suffer a season-ending knee injury this season, a 60 percent increase over 2011 that comes as defenders have sought to avoid penalties and fines for hits to the head.

Gronkowski, a two-time Pro Bowl tight end who’s scored 42 touchdowns in his 44 career starts, was injured during the third quarter of Sunday’s 27-26 win over the Cleveland Browns. After catching a pass down the middle of the field, Gronkowski was taken down after being hit in the right knee by Browns defensive back T.J. Ward, who dove low on the play.

Gronkowski will miss the rest of the season with torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, ESPN said, citing unidentified people familiar with the situation. It’s the 40th ACL injury of the season, according to ESPN, up from 32 last year and 25 in 2011.

“You see what defenders are doing — they’ve been put into a tough position getting away from the head,” said Merrill Hoge, who retired as a running back because of concussions and is now an ESPN NFL analyst. “When you lose a guy like that, that hurts not just the New England Patriots, that hurts the National Football League because he’s a guy that people identify with, he’s a significant player and he’s a difference-maker.”

With the loss of Gronkowski, the Patriots’ odds of winning the Super Bowl moved to 8-1 from 6-1 at the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook. The Patriots lead the American Football Conference East Division at 10-3, tied for the third-best record in the NFL, with three games left in the regular season.

In the past seven games with Gronkowski in the lineup, the Patriots averaged 32 points a game. Without him for the first six weeks, they averaged 20.8 points a game.

“I don’t think too many teams have players of that caliber at any position to just put in another Rob Gronkowski,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday on a conference call. “One way or another, we’ll have to adjust.”

Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne and running back Vick Ballard, St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, New York Jets running back Mike Goodson, Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller and Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer are among NFL players to suffer ACL injuries this season.

In an effort to reduce concussions and brain trauma, the NFL has cracked down on hits by defensive players to the head and neck area of offensive players. Safeties Dashon Goldson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Brandon Meriweather have both been suspended one game this season by the NFL for repeated helmet- to-helmet hits on defenseless receivers.

“The defenseless receiver rule has to extend not only to the head, but also to the knees,” said Terrell Davis, the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1998 who now is an NFL Network analyst.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league’s competition committee in the offseason routinely reviews all plays and injuries to determine if rule changes need to be made.

Ward, whose hit forced Gronkowski to be taken off the field on a cart, said the rule changes have made many defensive players go low to make tackles.

“If I were to hit him up high, there’s a chance I would be fined, so I was just being safe,” Ward told reporters. “Gronk’s a big dude, he’s not small by any means, it just makes it difficult. My intention is not to hurt anyone, that’s not what this game is about and that’s not how I play.”

Gronkowski is listed as 6-foot-6, 265 pounds; Ward is listed as 5-foot-10, 200 pounds.

Hoge said the NFL needs to address knee injuries. His suggestion is incorporating a target zone so defensive players can’t deliberately hit above the neck or below the knees.

“Nobody is saying you can’t hit the guy as hard you need to hit him still,” Hoge said. “That’s still going to be a part of the game. We’re just saying up around the head and neck area and below the knee, let’s make our emphasis there so we can avoid catastrophic injuries like this.”