KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If this is it, the inevitable march toward the end of Rob Gronkowski’s Patriot life, then this is a night he, and we, will never forget.
If these are indeed the final snaps for old No. 87 in red, white, and blue, then these are the plays that will define him forever.
Third and 5 in the fourth quarter, a fade pass down the left sideline, 25 yards. Third and 10 in overtime, a slant pass to the left side of the field, 15 yards.
Two plays for 40 yards, two plays to propel the Patriots to their third consecutive Super Bowl, this time at the expense of the top-seeded, homefield-advantaged Chiefs. The first to help New England take a late fourth-quarter lead, the second to set up an overtime game-winning touchdown, both to remind you that Rob Gronkowski isn’t just a member of Tom Brady’s circle of trust; he’s the king of the entire club.
“I’m just so happy to have been able to play with him for as long as I have,” Brady said in the bowels of Arrowhead Stadium, channeling the inner dialogue of every Patriot fan who bore witness once again to the preternatural connection these two players share, to the football relationship defined by trust and telepathy, to the bond seemingly unbreakable by time, injury, or opponent.
Of course Gronkowski wasn’t alone in helping the Patriots pull out this memorable 37-31 victory, wasn’t the only receiver making clutch catches in traffic in the most important moments of the game, wasn’t the only one helping Brady convert three different third-and-10s on the overtime drive. He was joined by Julian Edelman and by Chris Hogan in fighting for every ball, by the ever-churning rushing legs of Sony Michel and Rex Burkhead pushing for every extra yard, of the blocks of a dominant offensive line, and the thoughts of a superior play-caller.
But when it came down to the true crucial moments, when this game was stripped to its barest win-or-go-home bones, did you really ever doubt Brady would look Gronkowski’s way? After Gronk had a ball graze off his hands and turn into what would have been a debilitating fourth-quarter interception only to get nullified by a Dee Ford defensive offside, was there any doubt he would find a way to redeem his second chance?
“You got to play the full 60 minutes,” Gronkowski said, the reflective stickers shining on his brand new AFC Championship T-shirt, the championship cap atop his head shading a face smiling through smears of sweat and eye grease.
“You can get covered one play and not look so good, but you got to have confidence in each other. That’s what practice is all about, that’s what knowing each other is all about, knowing that when it comes to those situations you can put that ball up and I got to go and make the play.
“It’s crunch time. Make the play or you’re done, you’re out of the playoffs. It’s huge. It’s the trust that we have in each other. We love playing with each other. Just the bond we that have. To go out there and always be on the same page we need to be, it’s huge.”
Was it really only a week ago Gronkowski spent the bulk of the divisional playoff game putting his hand in the dirt, playing the part of passing-game decoy while practically joining the offensive line? Was it really only a game ago that Gronkowski was so occupied clearing a path for teammates he was an afterthought in Brady’s aerial attack?
Could it really be two weeks from now that Gronkowski will play his final game as a Patriot, destined for early retirement (he’s still a year away from 30) or, perhaps even more unthinkable, GM Bill Belichick’s cutting-room floor?
Seems impossible to imagine in the heady aftermath of this game, when the manchild who infuses his locker room with joyful exuberance and infuses his huddle with intense competitiveness put it all together for such a vintage dominating performance. He had five catches in the Patriots’ previous four games. He had six Sunday night on a season-high 11 targets, capped with the two most important of all.
“He caught the fade, and then he caught the slant, he was playing his butt off out there,” Brady said. “Whatever we ask him to do he does. The enthusiasm about him. He’s just an incredible person and teammate.”
Once Burkhead crossed the goal line with the game-winning points, there was Brady, hands to his head, shock on his face, a look of wonderment that reminds you there is no statute of limitation on pure athletic joy, no expiration date on the feeling these players discovered as children and have fought their entire professional lives to recreate as adults.
“Probably as excited as I’ve been in a long time,” Brady said.
Because he knows. He knows there is a finite end to this amazing career he has carved, to the partnerships he has formed with teammates like Gronk. And if this is the inevitable march toward Gronk’s end, what a hell of a union it’s been.