His numbers weren’t Gronkian. His effect? Totally Gronkian.
Rob Gronkowski’s return to the lineup helped fuel the Patriots to a 27-13 win over the Jets in the always-tough confines of MetLife Stadium — one of the blandest of NFL venues.
Gronkowski had three catches (on seven targets) for 56 yards and a touchdown in his first action in nearly a month. Solid but certainly not spectacular statistics given what the big tight end normally puts up.
However, it was with the little things that don’t show up in the Game Book that Gronkowski had his biggest impact.
Gronkowski’s mere presence opens things up for other pass catchers. His dominant blocking — both in line and in the open field — helps create running room for his teammates either out of the backfield or after the catch. And, of course, his boundless energy, infectious personality, and raucous end zone celebrations no matter who scores have a positive effect on his teammates.
It’s not always easy to gain access to Tom Brady’s circle of trusted receivers, though he has clearly reached a solid level with all the guys this season. There’s also an inner circle, and that’s where Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and James White reside.
Gronkowski’s scoring grab is a prime example of the inner-circle trust.
He was lined up tight to the offensive line (though in a traditional receiver stance) to Brady’s left. At the snap, he took off (without a bump) down the seam. The safety cheated toward the box, forcing linebacker Avery Williamson to chase Gronkowski down the seam by himself. Brady saw the mismatch and threw his prettiest pass of the day, a 34-yarder between Williamson and late-arriving cornerback Morris Claiborne.
“I think those are certain ones where Gronk is probably the only tight end in the league that can make that play,’’ said Brady.
On Edelman’s 21-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter — a score that really took the life out of the Jets — Gronkowski displayed his value as an open-field blocker.
Gronkowski lined up wide right with Edelman in the slot right. Claiborne had Gronkowski but nobody picked up Edelman. Brady hit him immediately and Edelman turned upfield. Gronkowski washed out Claiborne, and Edelman ran over Jamal Adams and into the end zone.
As he always is, Gronkowski was a factor in the run game as well, helping the Patriots churn out 215 yards on the ground.
Gronkowski dished out some great in-line blocking. On Sony Michel’s 7-yard run in the first quarter, Gronkowski took on Leonard Williams — whom Bill Belichick has lauded as hard to block — and occupied him long enough for Michel to scoot to the second level.
Michel’s nifty 33-yard run in the fourth quarter was another example. Gronkowski caved in linebacker Jordan Jenkins at the snap.
The big gainer was probably the most complete play of the game for New England. In addition to Gronkowski’s block, fullback James Develin demolished linebacker Darron Lee and left tackle Trent Brown got to the second level quicker than Michel and wiped out Williamson.
Michel showed exceptional vision and burst on the run, and his subtle stutter-step move nearly broke Darryl Roberts’s ankles.
Upon further film review, here are some other things that stood out as the Patriots improved to 8-3 and now sit as the No 2 seed in the AFC.
■ Yellow fever
Much has been and will be made of the inordinate number of flags thrown against the Patriots, who were whistled for 11 accepted penalties for 105 yards Sunday.
However, several were of the ticky-tack variety (holding calls on Brown and Joe Thuney would fall into that category) and one was nonexistent (James White’s phantom pass interference call). White’s “infraction” was actually a blessing in disguise, as Gronkowski scored on the do-over.
■ Chung crashes in
Patrick Chung showed once again why he is pound-for-pound one of the toughest players in the league. The versatile and fearless safety collected a game-high 13 tackles, often throwing his 5-foot-11-inch, 215-pound body into much bigger men.
Lined up more like a hybrid linebacker at times, Chung displayed excellent vision, instincts, and tackling techniques.
Take Isaiah Crowell’s second-down run in the first quarter. Chung filled the A gap like a blitzing linebacker and met the hard-charging Jets back head-on and took him down.
■ Brady on and off
On a day when Brady set the career record for most passing yards (playoffs included), he had some unusually poor throws.
He missed White on several short passes, including back-to-back attempts in the red zone on the opening drive of the third quarter. Brady is usually money on those. He overthrew Gronkowski on the next play, and a 14-play march ended with a Stephen Gostkowski field goal.
Brady’s deep throw to Cordarrelle Patterson early in the fourth quarter was wobbly and came up short. He was bailed out on a critical third-and-10 on the same drive when Josh Gordon snatched another short wobbler just before it hit the turf. Brady gave Gordon an emphatic “thank you” head-butt after the play. Six plays later, Michel scored to give New England a two-touchdown lead.
■ Michel the magnificent
Michel benefitted from consistently outstanding blocking from his offensive line but he also flashed excellent vision and instincts in making the appropriate reads on his runs. In addition, he made a ton of yards after first contact, dipping his shoulder and keeping his legs driving.
Perhaps his most significant play came in the third quarter when he took a quick swing pass from Brady and turned upfield for an 8-yard gain. It showed the confidence Brady has gained in the rookie (remember the circle of trust). It was a throw that Brady eschewed several times earlier in the season.