With two wins and two more serious injuries, the New England Patriots are getting back to normal.
They've regained their usual dominance after the second biggest loss of Tom Brady's career. They also lost their leading tackler and top rusher to right knee injuries, just as three important players were sidelined last year.
Middle linebacker Jerod Mayo was taken off the field on a cart in the second quarter of the Patriots 37-22 win in Buffalo on Sunday. Late in the third quarter, running back Stevan Ridley was helped off the field. Neither returned and both have been declared out of Thursday night's home game against the New York Jets.
Mayo is a captain and chief communicator on defense.
"A lot of guys have to step up because a guy like that is hard to replace, not only what he does on the field but who he is in this locker room, his leadership, the man that he is," special teams captain Matthew Slater said Monday. "There's no really replacing that guy with one guy."
Mayo, chosen for two Pro Bowls in his first six NFL seasons, played six games last year before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle. Two starting defensive tackles also had season-ending injuries, Vince Wilfork in the fourth game and Tommy Kelly in the fifth.
"In the back of your mind, I think you have to understand if you play this game long enough the injury rate's 100 percent," Slater said. "It may not always be the big, traumatic injuries, but there's going to be some sort of injury that you sustain."
Ridley's injury occurred when he was tackled for a 2-yard loss by cornerback Stephon Gilmore and landed hard. He's leading the Patriots in rushing for the third straight season and hasn't had a fumble after losing two in 2012 and four last year.
"Stevan put a lot of work in this offseason preparing himself, making himself better, improving his game and he was doing a good job for us," Slater said. "That's another situation you just hate to see sometimes, the cruel effects of this game with the injuries. It's definitely heartbreaking to see guys go down like that, but we have to do as good a job as we can of just trying to move on and continuing to play well."
Left guard Dan Connolly left the game with a concussion. Rookie center Bryan Stork missed the game with a concussion after starting the previous two games.
The Patriots (4-2) have played very well since losing 41-14 at Kansas City on Sept. 29. They routed the Cincinnati Bengals 43-17 the following Sunday then beat the Bills.
New England has scored 80 points in its last two games after totaling 80 in its first four.
Brady is coming off his two best games of the season and is distributing the ball better. Against Buffalo, he threw four touchdown passes and had completions to 10 receivers.
"Tom is doing a really good job of getting the ball to where it's supposed to go," offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. "Whenever it's their turn to be targeted, I think our guys are trying to do a good job of making the most of those opportunities."
Tight end Rob Gronkowski has progressed steadily after undergoing offseason knee surgery. He had 13 catches in his first four games then added six against Cincinnati and seven against Buffalo.
"We are clicking as a team right now," he said. "We are clicking on offense and clicking on defense. We just have to keep it going and keep working hard. We can't put our heads down no matter what it is or what situation it is."
Mayo's absence could be offset somewhat by the likely return of starting linebacker Dont'a Hightower. He missed his second straight game with a knee injury, but it was a game-time decision.
Without Ridley, New England could use Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden or rookie James White, who has been active for just one game.
"Whatever the future has in store for us, you just don't know as a football player," said defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who had three sacks Sunday after getting just one in the first five games. "You don't know what play or in what game that someone could have an injury. Whatever we have, we just have to go and continue on and stay mentally tough and have another guy step up."