FOXBOROUGH — The stat sheet will try to tell you Rob Gronkowski arrived at Sunday’s game early in the third quarter, when a 25-yard catch and rumble reminded you of everything this tight end monster can be. With his meaty hands finally, mercifully, on the ball for the first time in this AFC divisional playoff game against the Chargers, Gronkowski made sure he wasn’t going to let it go without a fight.
He stiff-armed cornerback Michael Davis. He ran through safety Rayshawn Jenkins. He was finally dragged down by safety Adrian Phillips, but not before making sure Phillips felt the impact twice — first from Gronkowski’s 6-foot-6-inch, 260-pound frame, and again with the Gillette Stadium turf. The reception would be the only one Gronkowski would make Sunday, which seems impossible given the 41-28 dominance of the current Patriots and the pass-catching exploits of Gronkowski’s past. But to imagine Gronkowski’s influence on a victory to send the Patriots to their eighth consecutive AFC Championship game could be summed up by one measly catch, well, that would mean missing the full portrait of this football unicorn.
If injuries, retirement or free agency eventually confirm this as Gronkowski’s final home game as a Patriot, then it was a hell of a way to go out, to watch him blocking with such ferocity Sunday that offensive lineman Marcus Cannon said he could make a seamless career position switch if he just added a couple dozen extra pounds. So never mind that coach Bill Belichick wasn’t interested in going there after his team’s nationally televised beatdown of the Chargers, unwilling to separate Gronkowski, or any other individual for that matter, as deserving of specific praise.
As substitute interpreters go, how about a scouting report from Mark Bavaro, the one tight end Belichick has always loved, the one he continues to hold up as the model at the position, the Massachusetts native and former Belichickian Giant who all but defined the run-blocking/pass-catching tight end combination Gronkowski routinely channels. Getting praise from him has to be as good as getting it from Belichick, right?
“He’s fun to watch in the secondary, seeing guys draped all over him,” Bavaro said in a postgame phone conversation, “running through them like a giant among pygmies.”
That part came in the third quarter, but it was what Bavaro saw earlier in the game that left him most impressed.
“It was interesting because in the first half, I saw at one point on the sideline Dante Scarnecchia go up to Gronkowski and talk to him, which is unusual, because he’s the line coach,” Bavaro said. “I said to myself, ‘I bet there’s a lot of Gronkowski involved in the blocking scheme today for him to go up talk to him like that.’ ”
Just a few plays later, Gronkowski was part of the Patriots’ road-grading crew that cleared a touchdown path for Rex Burkhead. On the same drive, only two plays prior, Gronkowski held up two separate downfield blocks as Sony Michel covered 40 yards. The efforts helped the Patriots open up a 28-7 lead.
“When Burkhead scored a touchdown, it was a great combination block with [Gronkowski] and a tackle, they double-teamed the defensive end, Gronk slipped off to the linebacker, No. 51 [Kyle Emanuel],” Bavaro said. “It was like the whole left side of the offensive side just walked it down past the goal line. To take the whole left side of the defense and push them back into the end zone is pretty impressive for anybody. You just don’t see it anymore in the NFL today. I’ve always said he’s a good blocker, but I haven’t seen him block that much because the Pats don’t run the ball that much. That was very impressive.”
Gronkowski’s massive footprints and oversized fingerprints were all over this one — he even drew the pass interference penalty that set up New England’s first touchdown, a 1-yard Michel plunge. Gronkowski’s willingness to spend the bulk of his snaps Sunday as a hand-in-the-dirt lineman speaks to everything that has made him a New England football icon.
“That was a real fun game,” he said afterward, still grinning in his sweatpants and zip-up, not quite ready to acknowledge his Gillette run might be over, but more than willing to step away from the microphone and greet the group of servicemen who had executed the pregame flyover. “The run game’s huge. I believe it’s a huge asset of the game and helps open the pass game, helps open the receivers in the pass game, the running backs in the pass game. Just being able to run the ball, to block, I’ve never taken it for granted. I’ve always loved run blocking. I love to do the balance of both. But whatever I get asked to do, run blocking, pass blocking, whatever, going up for a pass, I’m up to do it.”
He does it well.
“A monster,” Burkhead called him.
“A beast,” Jason McCourty concurred.
“He’s a great blocker, and I think that’s something that goes maybe a little under the radar with his skill set,” quarterback Tom Brady said. “He’s one of the most dominant blocking tight ends in the league, but again, such a threat when he catches it. He did such a great job at the start of the third quarter.”
That was the vintage Gronkowski moment, the one that brought the crowd to its feet and made the stadium shake on its foundation. Nobody turns this place up like Gronk, his childlike glee and man-up work ethic forging a connection to every fan.
“I always feel the love from the crowd,” he said. “I haven’t been having all the receptions and stuff [this season], but I had one today and you could tell, it was definitely great to get the love from them, even on the one catch. It was super neat.”
And at least for some, super impressive.
“The tight ends today don’t have that lineman football mentality, they’re more of the flamboyant receiver mentality, only because that’s what the game calls for,” Bavaro said. “You could always get the type of tough, hard-nosed tight ends you used to see in the ’80s, but now they want a guy like [Chiefs tight end Travis] Kelce. I think the tide is turning, you’re starting to see more and more all-around tight ends. Gronk has always been that. It’s never been an issue.”
Gronk didn’t arrive at this game in the third quarter. He was there all the time. And it was glorious.