CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff
FOXBOROUGH — ’Tis the season for giving, but Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is more into receiving when he plays the Buffalo Bills. One-handed catches aren’t the only thing Gronkowski holds onto against Buffalo. Gronk holds a grudge against the Bills.
He takes it out on them every time he plays them.
Sunday at Gillette Stadium was no different. The Patriots’ sui generis tight end, who grew up just outside of Buffalo in Williamsville, N.Y., once again tormented his hometown team as the Patriots pulled away for their regularly scheduled rout of the Bills — a 37-16 victory that moved them one step closer to securing the top seed in the AFC playoffs.
Everybody’s favorite football frat boy had five catches for 67 yards, including a stunning one-handed touchdown grab. He also set up the Patriots’ go-ahead score in the third quarter, drawing a 29-yard pass interference penalty that put the ball at the Buffalo 1-yard line. In 13 career games against Buffalo, the Big Fella has 66 catches for 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those are his best numbers against any opponent. That’s not a coincidence.
It’s rare for a Patriots player to discard the organization’s prescribed pretense of banality. But Gronkowski did when asked to explain his dominance against the Bills.
“Sorry to them for that. I don’t know, it’s just cool when your hometown team passed on you twice in that draft, and you kind of remember it still,” said Gronkowski. “No lie. I remember it every single time I play them.”
The provenance of the Bills’ Gronk misery is the 2010 NFL Draft. They used the ninth pick to take running back C.J. Spiller. Then with the 41st selection, they drafted defensive tackle Torell Troup. The Patriots, who traded up two spots, used the next pick on Gronkowski.
Decisions like that are why the Patriots are the overlords of the AFC East, and the Bills haven’t made the playoffs this millennium. Troup played 21 games for the Bills. He has been out of the NFL since 2014.
Gronkowski is blazing a path that could make him the greatest tight end of all time, and he is a legitimate MVP candidate this season.
Hyperbole? It’s hard to characterize it as such when Gronkowski went all Cedric Maxwell and single-handedly put the Patriots in position to score the winning points against the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday. The MVP race is wide open. Why not Gronk?
Perhaps the best case for Gronkowski’s MVP candidacy isn’t what he has contributed to the Patriots, but how they’ve performed in his absence. He has missed two games. They’re the Patriots’ two lowest-scoring games this season — a 19-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 5 and a 27-20 loss to the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 11.
With Gronk serving a one-game suspension for dropping a WWE elbow/forearm on Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White in the teams’ first meeting on Dec. 3, Tom Brady looked lost against Miami and the Patriots looked inept offensively. Brady threw two interceptions and the Patriots went 0 for 11 on third down.
In what has been a season of injuries to key players, it’s obvious that Brady is the player the Patriots can’t afford to lose. If Brady is No. 1 on the list of indispensable Patriots, then Gronkowski is 1A.
Yes, the Patriots won the Super Bowl last season without Gronkowski, but that was when Brady had his BFF Julian Edelman available. This year, it’s Gronk or bust in crunch time.
That’s why there was concern going into this game that the Bills would be gunning for Gronk to exact revenge for his cheap shot on White. Instead of Buffalo hurting Gronkowski, it was the joyful juggernaut once again wounding the Bills.
A depleted Patriots offense, playing without running backs James White and Rex Burkhead and wide receiver Chris Hogan, needed the Full Gronkowski to fend off the determined Bills. This was the rare late-December visit from the Bills when they arrived with visions of a playoff berth dancing in their heads.
Gillette Stadium got awfully quiet after the Bills took a 10-3 lead on a 19-yard interception return for a touchdown by safety Jordan Poyer with 10:28 left in the first half. It marked the fifth straight game with an interception for Brady, an ignominious feat he last achieved in 2002, his second full season as a starter.
The Patriots tied the game on the ensuing drive, courtesy of His Gronkness. Buffalo’s nemesis reeled in a jaw-dropping, one-handed catch, plucking an errant Brady back-shoulder throw out of the air with his right paw for a 17-yard touchdown with 7:06 left in the half.
“[Micah] had perfect coverage,” said Poyer. “One of the greatest of all time to ever do it and a Hall of Fame tight end, they put the ball in a perfect position. It is what it is.”
Brady benefited from a Gronk bailout. “That was a big play in the game, and any time you can throw it to Rob it’s a good play,” said a chagrined Brady.
The Patriots surged ahead for good, 23-16, with 55 seconds left in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by Mike Gillislee, who was taken out of mothballs after six straight weeks as an inactive to face his former team. The play was set up by a 29-yard pass interference penalty drawn by Gronkowski.
Gronk is rivaling Brady — 28-3 all time against his personal Washington Generals — as the gridiron grinch of Western New York. He is also rivaling Brady as the Patriots’ MVP candidate.
Gronkowski now has 69 catches for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns this season, all team highs. He needs 11 catches or 116 yards in the regular-season-finale against the New York Jets next Sunday to earn all of the incentives on his restructured contract, which is worth a maximum of $10.75 million.
But now we know Gronkowski always has incentive to pay back the Bills.
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