FOXBOROUGH — There will be a time when Rob Gronkowski is done playing football, a time when he’ll no longer be spiking footballs with enough force to lodge them 6 feet into the ground.
There is no telling when that time will come, but when it does, Gronkowski will finally reflect on the records he’s amassed as one of the most dangerous tight ends in NFL history.
Gronkowski caught six passes for 81 yards and a touchdown in the Patriots’ 35-14 win over the Tennessee Titans in Saturday night’s AFC divisional-round game at Gillette Stadium. The touchdown was his 10th all time in the playoffs, extending his NFL record for a tight end. He also passed Shannon Sharpe and Keith Jackson for the second-most postseason receiving yards for a tight end with 835, only 12 shy of Dallas Clark’s record.
Gronkowski seems to further cement his legacy with every game he plays, but none of that matters at the moment to the big tight end, not when there is a more pertinent task at hand. True to the Patriot Way, Gronkowski is focused on the goal directly in front of him, which is doing whatever he can to help the Patriots win next Sunday’s AFC Championship game against the Jaguars. A victory would bring the team’s third Super Bowl appearance in four seasons.
“What’s most important is getting that win, and that’s what we did,” Gronkowski said after the Titans game. “We took care of our job. [The record is] great to hear and everything, but that’s not really the main goal. Maybe down the road you can look back and look at that stuff, but as of right now our main goal is just keep on grinding, get the win, and that’s what we did.”
The Patriots’ run to their fifth championship last season, marked by an unforgettable comeback against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, was impressive enough that it’s easy to forget Gronkowski wasn’t part of the action after having back surgery in December.
What’s not easy to forget is Gronkowski’s importance to the Patriots offense. New England got a boost against the Titans when wide receiver Chris Hogan and running back James White returned to the lineup. White, who has a penchant for making big plays in big games, scored two touchdowns. Hogan added another score and threw a vicious block on a Dion Lewis catch-and-run.
Gronkowski has been the constant for the offense all season. He was named All-Pro after catching 69 passes for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns.
Complementary pieces of the offense, such as White and Hogan, perform better when Gronkowski is firing on all cylinders. He commands so much attention from the defense, even when he’s not getting the ball.
The Titans focused on Gronkowski so heavily in the first half that it allowed Tom Brady to freely target other playmakers. Lewis and White combined to make eight catches for 81 yards in the first two quarters. Danny Amendola hauled in all seven targets for 62 yards in the half.
Midway through the third quarter, on first and 10 from their 44-yard line, the Patriots lined up Gronkowski as the fullback. It certainly fooled the Titans.
Gronkowski went in motion to his left, pausing near the line of scrimmage, and that left the defense scrambling. At the snap, Gronkowski released up the middle, against single coverage by linebacker Wesley Woodyard, and his reception went for 27 yards.
“It just gives Tom a sense of what the defense, what the coverage is going to be when you motion over like that,” Gronkowski said. “Just had to go make a play. Tom threw a nice ball. I just made the catch and got some yards.”
Prior to Saturday’s win, Gronkowski hadn’t played a postseason game since the AFC Championship game loss to the Broncos in the 2015 season. He has caught at least one TD pass in his last six playoff games.
That 27-yard catch put him past Sharpe on the postseason yardage list. It took Gronkowski seven fewer games (11) than Sharpe to reach that mark. Gronkowski’s final catch of the game, his 4-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, bumped him past Jackson, who played in 13 playoff games.
Had Gronkowski played in last season’s playoffs, he’d already be atop the yardage list. Then again, personal accolades don’t really matter much to him right now.
Gronkowski strolled to the podium for his postgame news conference Saturday night with his mouth full. He turned his back to the cameras so he could finish his snack.
Whatever he was eating, it’s unlikely it was enough to satiate his appetite. The only thing Gronkowski is hungry for is to help the Patriots win another Lombardi Trophy.