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ATLANTA — Rob Gronkowski saved his best for last in what might have been his last NFL game. The inimitable and, for most of his career, unstoppable tight end shook off a trying season and the suffocating defense of the Los Angeles Rams to make the biggest catch of a Super Bowl where offense was historically hard to come by.

If it weren’t for the Big Guy the Patriots might not be celebrating a 13-3 tractor pull of a victory on Sunday night and a sixth Super Bowl title. When the Patriots needed the Full Gronk that’s exactly what they got in all his game-changing glory, injuries and age be darned. Thanks to Gronkowski the end zones didn’t go unused in Super Bowl LIII and the Patriots didn’t lose a second consecutive Super Bowl. These plucky Patriots went from self-proclaimed underdogs to NFL top dogs in front of a Foxborough-like crowd of 70,081 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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The only touchdown of a game that featured a paucity of points was set up by a 29-yard reception by Gronkowski that moved the ball to the Rams’ 2-yard line. On the next play, Sony Michel punched it in to break a 3-3 tie and score the first and only touchdown 53 minutes into the action.

Rob Gronkowski Super Bowl post game press conference

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman was a deserving Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, but the Most Valuable Play was a Tom Brady pass that landed in Gronkowski’s hands, a seam route in which Gronkowski shed a season of injuries and questions about his performance the way he does would-be tackles and summoned his old self, the guy who is one of the NFL’s most devastating weapons. If this is how Gronkowski goes out — he dodged questions about his retirement after the game — he left his mark on the biggest possible stage at the best possible time. That’s what all-time greats do.

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“It feels good to make that one big play,” said Gronkowski. “You know, Julian in the huddle on that drive looked me and said, ‘We need another play out of you, Rob. We need a huge play.’ He had been making them all game. I had to step up. Tom threw that ball where it needed to be, so it was huge. Then Sony just finished the job with the run in.”

The Patriots won this Super Bowl title 17 years to the day that they won their first against the then-St. Louis Rams. This Patriots team is the most improbable Super Bowl winner since that first one, and it won an improbably low-scoring Super Bowl that featured the fewest combined points in Super Bowl history. It couldn’t have done it without Gronkowski finding the old magic one more time.

With the Patriots locked in a defensive struggle, Gronkowski had 47 of their 69 yards on their fateful five-play touchdown drive.

The Patriots got the ball with 9:49 to go at their 31. On first down, Gronk faked like he was blocking and then rolled down the sideline, catching an 18-yard pass from Brady to move the ball to the Patriots’ 49. Two plays later on second and 3 from the Rams’ 31, Gronkowski made his retro reception.

The Patriots had success on the drive lining up in 22 personnel (two backs and two tight ends) and then going empty. They went to that formation on this play with Gronkowski in the slot to Brady’s left. Gronk ran straight down the field and outran Rams linebacker Cory Littleton, Brady made a laser-guided throw, and Gronkowski dived to haul the ball in, hanging on as he hit the turf.

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Rob Gronkowski hauled in a Tom Brady pass to set up the winning touchdown.
Rob Gronkowski hauled in a Tom Brady pass to set up the winning touchdown.BARRY CHIN/GLOBE STAFF

“It was crunch time. I knew it was going to come to me. I just had a feeling,” said Gronkowski. “We ran the play like two plays before. I kind of beat the guy. I had a little leverage. [Josh] McDaniels saw it. He repeated the play again. I knew it was going to come to me. Tom put it up there, and I went up and made the play, just surreal, just an unbelievable team win.”

If this was Gronkowski’s final game, it ended with some symmetry. Fittingly, Gronkowski finished the game with six catches (on seven targets) for 87 yards, his receiving yardage matching his iconic jersey number.

“You know, I haven’t thought about that decision at all,” said Gronkowski, when asked about his rumored retirement. “You know, tonight is the night to celebrate with my team. In the future that will be decided in a few weeks or so. Tonight it’s about celebrating with our team because we stuck together as a team.”

Gronkowski was prepared to retire last offseason if the Patriots followed through and traded him to the Detroit Lions. All involved should thank their lucky stars that Gronk vetoed that deal with his retirement threat.

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Starting with an offseason in which he stayed away during all but the mandatory portion of the offseason program, this was a trying season for Gronkowski. He averaged 52.5 yards per game, his fewest since his rookie season. He missed three games because of injury and was on and off the injury report with what the team listed as back and ankle injuries. In reality, they were a bulging disk in his balky back and Achilles’ tendinitis, according to a report by Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network.

Gronkowski was often introspective and honest about the physical toll that football has taken on his body in nine seasons. He made news during Super Bowl week when he said that people just don’t understand the effect that playing a car-crash sport can have both physically and mentally on the players. But, like his team, he rounded into form in the postseason, making crunching blocks and huge catches.

“It’s a grind throughout the whole season playing football, taking those hits all the time,” said Gronkowski. “I felt good out there. I felt real good. I just had to make the plays when my number was called.”

Regardless of his physical condition or long-term commitment to football, his teammates never had any doubt Gronk would deliver when it counted most.

“He’s a playmaker. Gronk’s always been that way,” said Chris Hogan. “Whenever our team needs a play in a crunch situation we go to No. 87, and he came up huge for us. That was one of the biggest plays in the game.”

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As Gronkowski addressed the media at the podium in the bowels of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Brady walked by and yelled, “Tell ’em Beast Mode, tell ’em.”

One more time, perhaps, one last time, Gronkowski was Beast Mode, and he couldn’t have picked a better time or a bigger game to do it.

This didn’t look like the Patriots’ year or Gronk’s day until it was both.


Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.