FOXBOROUGH — When the Patriots gathered on the Gillette Stadium turf Friday afternoon for their final practice of the week, Rob Gronkowski was with them.
The tight end practiced for the first time since breaking his left arm against the Colts on Nov. 18 and undergoing surgery a day later.
Even though he took part in practice — he was listed as limited on the injury report and termed questionable — a league source said Gronkowski is not expected to play Sunday night against San Francisco.
It would be surprising if he played next week against Jacksonville. With a playoff spot secured, and a real possibility of clinching the No. 2 seed in the AFC (and a first-round bye), there seems little need to rush Gronkowski back.
He has also been recovering from a hip problem.
The Patriots had perfect attendance for the first time since the days leading up to their Week 2 game with Arizona.
Gronkowski is one of 19 players questionable for Sunday, a list that includes the Patriots’ top three cornerbacks: Kyle Arrington (knee), Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring), and Aqib Talib (hip).
Left tackle Nate Solder, who was clutching his side during Monday night’s game, was added to the report Friday, limited with an abdomen injury. He is also questionable.
Close to milestone
Wes Welker has an NFL-leading 95 receptions, and barring injury he will become the first player in league history to record five seasons with 100 or more catches.
“That’s a lot of catches for a lot of years,” coach Bill Belichick said. “To be able to go out there and do it week after week against all the different coverages, all the different matchups we see and all that, it’s a real credit to Wes’s ability, but also his toughness and his durability because he’s taken a lot of hits out there.
“Our slot receivers historically — Troy Brown, Wes — they’ve always caught a lot of balls, but he’s caught a lot for a long time and returned kicks for us, and blocks. He’s a tough kid. He’s in there on a lot of plays, and it’s not all catches; he’s in there blocking in the running game. He had a big block on [Stevan] Ridley’s touchdown last week.”
Welker has 649 receptions since joining the Patriots in 2007.
During an interview with reporters from San Francisco Thursday, 49ers sackmaster Aldon Smith (19½ sacks) was asked what he thinks when he looks at the Patriots’ offense: Is it “wow, how do we stop them?” or “we can stop them.”
Smith’s simple answer: “We can stop them.”
The second-year linebacker gave an honest answer, and given that San Francisco’s defense is allowing just 14.2 points per game, he has reason to be confident.
Can Belichick and the Patriots use Smith’s words as bulletin-board material?
“Look, they have a good defense and I’m sure they expect to play well,” Belichick said. “We have a good team and expect to play well. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t put any points on the board or give you any blocks, tackles or yards or anything else.
“It will come down to how the teams perform on Sunday night. That’s really what it’s all about. The rest is just good for you [media] to work with.”
Belichick has used even seemingly innocuous statements, such as Philadelphia mapping out a parade route before Super Bowl XXXIX, as motivation for his players.
And after the way the Patriots seemed to relish making a statement against Houston, Smith’s words might provide a bit of fuel to the matchup.
The 49ers list a dozen players on their injury report, though 11 of the 12 are listed as probable. Only receiver Mario Manningham, not remembered fondly by Patriots fans after Super Bowl XLVI, is doubtful with a shoulder injury . . . The Patriots are hosting a holiday toy drive at Sunday night’s game. Fans can bring a new, unwrapped toy, which will be delivered to needy children by Patriots players at upcoming charitable events. Fans making a donation will receive a $5 voucher to the Patriots Pro Shop.