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Rob Gronkowski is in a league of his own

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Rob Gronkowski’s 53-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter gave him a Patriots’ record 69 career touchdowns.Barry Chin

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The flavor of the day in Buffalo on Sunday: Salty.

The Bills were in no mood to congratulate Rob Gronkowski after the Patriots' tight end broke Stanley Morgan's team record for career touchdowns, scoring his 69th in the Patriots' 41-25 win.

"He uses his body well, but he's got Tom Brady," Bills safety Corey Graham said. "I mean, Tom Brady's Tom Brady."

"I'm more impressed with [Martellus] Bennett than Gronk," Bills linebacker Zach Brown added. "When Tom Brady wasn't here, you didn't hear [Gronkowski]. But when Tom Brady comes back he knows where to place it, how to place it, and he uses Gronk's size to his advantage."


"As far as blocking, no, I do not think he's one of the best. Bennett is probably a better blocker."

We'll excuse the Bills for being a little bitter. It couldn't have been fun to watch Gronkowski and the Patriots march up and down the field, scoring points on seven of nine drives before Brady was mercifully lifted from the game with 4:29 remaining.

Gronkowski dominated once again, catching five passes for 109 yards and a 53-yard touchdown in the second quarter that broke open a close game. And he did it in front of a few dozen close family and friends in his hometown of Buffalo, plus about "50 middle fingers from people in the first three rows" from rabid Bills fans.

His younger brother Glenn, a fullback on the Patriots' practice squad, sat with family at New Era Field. The Gronk clan cheered wildly when Gronkowski scored his record-breaking touchdown, chanting "Sixty-nine! Sixty-nine!"

"I want to give a shoutout to my mom, too," Gronkowski said. "First thing yesterday, we sat down, she came to my hotel, she goes, 'Rob, I'm so proud of you when you score your 69th touchdown. So I got to give her a shoutout, for sure."


His touchdown was eerily similar to the one he scored last week against Pittsburgh — beating a defensive back off the line of scrimmage, streaking down the seam, and galloping to the end zone. This time, Bills cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman was the helpless victim.

"Love it. Love to see those touchdowns," coach Bill Belichick said.

Gronkowski received a call from Morgan, who played with the Patriots from 1977-89, after the game. Morgan scored his 68 touchdowns in 180 career games. Gronkowski has 69 TDs in just 85 regular-season games.

"Definitely an honor," Gronkowski said. "He said congratulations, and it was pretty cool."

Gronkowski now has three 100-yard games since Brady returned four weeks ago. Gronk has 473 yards in the four games, by far the best four-game stretch of his career (he had 419 yards in 2013).

And in this stretch his vast repertoire of skills has been on full display.

Against the Steelers, the Patriots ran the ball behind Gronkowski and the left side of the line over and over, helping LeGarrette Blount rush for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

Gronk also showed again on Sunday he is now a polished receiver in his seventh NFL season, not just a big body. You can hear it just by the way he described his touchdown.

"I had a feeling I just had to get up on the safety's toes, give him a little move and cross his face," Gronkowski said. "And Tom read it super well and it was a great, great throw."


"He makes it easy on anybody throwing him the ball," Brady said last week. "He's got great length, and catch radius, and speed and quickness for his size. He can run the whole route tree, so he's just a great target."

We saw Gronk's great hands when he snatched a back-shoulder throw out of the air at the last second. We saw his power when he bulldozed through several defenders on the same catch, turning it into a 31-yard gain.

We saw his nimble feet, when he tapped his toes along the sideline for an 18-yard catch in the third quarter.

"That was something special that you don't expect from Gronk," Bennett said. "That was nice."

And we saw his deceptive speed on his touchdown.

"Rob beat Robey inside and ran away from him," Belichick said. "That was impressive, too."

If the Bills bothered to look in the record books, they'd notice Gronkowski is quickly climbing up the ranks.

In addition to setting the Patriots' all-time touchdown record, Gronkowski became the 14th tight end in NFL history with 6,000 career receiving yards. He has 23 100-yard games, third most by a tight end in NFL history. And the Brady-Gronk connection has produced 67 touchdowns, tied with Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne for the sixth most by any duo in NFL history. Drew Brees and Marques Colston are next at 72.

"He's pretty danged good," Bills coach Rex Ryan conceded. "He's a phenomenal player and he's been that way for a long time."


Gronkowski came into the league as an injury risk, and after four forearm surgeries and a back surgery, it didn't look like Gronk was ever going to be able to stay on the field and maximize his potential.

But he has played in 41 of a possible 44 games since the start of the 2014 season, and has put himself in the conversation for the greatest tight end of all time.

Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Kellen Winslow, Shannon Sharpe, and Mike Ditka are also in that conversation, but those players didn't possess the all-around skill set that Gronk has. The modern tight ends don't block like Gronkowski, and the older guys certainly weren't the same receiving threat.

"He's one of the best blockers. I mean, I'll put him there with [Mark] Bavaro in terms of the guys I've coached," Belichick said in 2015. "And he takes pride in it, too. There are a lot of plays Rob comes to the sideline and he's more excited about a block he made on the series than a catch he made, which a lot of tight ends I've coached I wouldn't put in that category. He really takes pride in it."

Gronkowski doesn't seem to mind the criticism that he's a product of a Hall of Fame quarterback.

"I love being part of the Brady era. I couldn't ask to be in any better situation when I got drafted here seven years ago," he said. "It's just awesome to come here and tear it up."


And he'll continue to tear it up one touchdown catch, one run block at a time.

"He's just a flat-out beast that goes and has fun," Julian Edelman said. "What a great way for him to go out and beat a record."

The most prolific quarterback-tight end touchdown tandems in NFL history:

Quarterback Tight end Team TDs
Philip Rivers Antonio Gates San Diego 79
Tom Brady Rob Gronkowski New England 67
Drew Brees Jimmy Graham New Orleans 51
Drew Bledsoe Ben Coates New England 45
Peyton Manning Dallas Clark Indianapolis 44
Sonny Jurgensen Jerry Smith Washington 43
Dan Fouts Kellen Winslow San Diego 41
John Elway Shannon Sharpe Denver 41
Ben Roethlisberger Heath Miller Pittsburgh 41

Watch: Ben Volin and Jim McBride break down the Patriots’ win

Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.