FOXBOROUGH — That whoosh you heard at Gillette Stadium on Sunday wasn’t the winter wind or frozen fans rushing for the parking lots. It was a regional sigh of relief that tight end Rob Gronkowski made it through the season finale, a 28-0 win over the listless Miami Dolphins, with his left forearm and the Patriots’ Super Bowl dreams intact.
Gronk made a triumphant — albeit limited — return to action. He missed five games after he broke his forearm late in the 59-24 victory over the Colts on Nov. 18. On Sunday, he had two catches for 42 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown.
It goes without saying that a healthy Gronk is sine qua non to a fourth Lombardi Trophy. The Patriots’ pecking order of stardom is Brady, Belichick, Gronkowski. We forever will wonder “what-if” when it comes to the Super Bowl XLVI loss to the Giants. Gronkowski was hobbled with a severe ankle injury and saved his best moves for the dance floor at the postgame party.
Armed with their inimitable tight end, the Patriots, who gained the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with their win and the Texans’ loss, appear to be on a collision course with old pal Peyton Manning for an AFC Championship game showdown.
Any doubts about whether the jocular Gronk was back were answered after the game when he was asked about taking his first hit. His eyes lit up and a winsome smile crossed his face.
“It felt good,” said the Gronkster. “I haven’t been hit in a while. It’s been a couple of weeks, about six weeks since I got hit. It’s football. I’m always ready to get hit. I’m always ready to get knocked down. You just have to get back up and get back in the huddle. It felt good to be back out there.”
There is no debating that Gronkowski is about as fun-loving and indefatigable an athlete as you’re ever going to find. What is open for debate is whether the Patriots should have taken the risk of playing him at all. It was obvious that they could have beaten the feckless Fins without him. It was also obvious he wasn’t 100 percent 41 days removed from surgery.
What isn’t as obvious is whether Gronkowski would have been reintroduced to the lineup if the Patriots could not have gained the No. 2 seed with a victory. The Patriots kicked off knowing that a first-round bye was theirs with a victory.
The Texans continued their late-season fade by losing, 28-16, in the emotional return of cancer-stricken Colts coach Chuck Pagano.
Gronkowski clearly was favoring his left arm during the game. He was not as effective as a blocker. When he scored his touchdown to put the Patriots ahead, 28-0, with 9:20 left in the fourth quarter he offered one of his trademark Richter scale-registering spikes, but quickly retracted his left arm when quarterback Tom Brady jumped to greet him.
If it had been up to Patriots fans the team would have put medieval armor on Gronkowski’s forearm, instead of a mere heavy wrap.
Coach Bill Belichick was nebulous when asked what went into the decision to play his all-world tight end.
“He was ready to play,” said Belichick, who repeated that response word for word when asked if Gronk would have played if the Texans had locked up a bye.
Gronkowski was equally evasive. The big fella said he was cleared by team doctors late in the week. But his mind-set was to play before then. Football games are the ultimate fiesta for Gronkowski.
“I just prepared all week thinking I was going to play,” said Gronkowski. “I really didn’t just get an answer like, ‘OK, Rob, you’re good to go.’ The doctors cleared me and everything. That was good. I was just preparing myself all week that I was going to play. Really, it wasn’t when I got cleared because I was preparing myself all week since Monday that I was going to come out here and play with the teammates.”
Any doubts about whether Gronkowski would be able to catch with his bandaged appendage were erased when he hauled in the first pass thrown in his direction. Brady found Gronkowski over the middle for a 19-yard gain with 7:15 left in the first quarter.
One play later, Brady threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Wes Welker and the Patriots were off and running with a 7-0 lead.
It’s not like the Patriots were starved for points without Gronkowski. Despite his missing five games, they still set an NFL record for first downs (444), averaged 34.8 points per game, and scored 557 points, the third-highest total in NFL history. But he is an immovable and irreplaceable force, particularly inside the opponents’ 30-yard line. He is the exclamation point to the Patriots’ offense. In just 11 games, Gronkowski had a team-high 11 TD receptions.
“You know when Gronk is on the field,” said fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez. “You have to double him. He’s big and too athletic. He opens it up for me, Wes, [Brandon] Lloyd, Deion [Branch]. It’s just good to have him. He’s going to be even healthier come playoff time.”
Playing Gronkowski may have been a risk. But the reward is that he won’t need a can of Rust-Oleum before the playoffs.
“You always want to get some reps before heading into the playoffs,” said Gronkowski. “It’s good to get the speed down, the feel of the game. In practice you can go hard, but that was game time. It was great to get some reps in, get the flow back into it, and be into it with your teammates.”
Gronkowski now has a whole extra week to let his forearm recover.
Gronk is back in the lineup and the Patriots are postseason favorites. Good thing the Mayans were wrong.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.