Rob Gronkowski, one of the league’s impossible-to-overlook superstars — not infrequently spotted shirtless — made his presence felt yet again Saturday.
In the team’s 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC divisional round, it was Gronkowski who accounted for the first touchdown of the game, the culmination of an 11-play, 4 minute 37 second drive that put New England on the scoreboard in front of a packed crowd at Gillette Stadium. It was Gronkowski who snagged a 16-yard touchdown to put the Patriots up 21-6 midway through the third quarter (and subsequently shimmied in the end zone). And it was Gronkowski who recovered an onside kick attempt, allowing Tom Brady to bleed the clock dry, advancing Bill Belichick’s outfit to its fifth consecutive AFC title game.
“Sounds pretty good,” Gronkowski said of the win. “I’m just going to prepare hard this week. See who we’re playing after tonight’s game and just do what we have to do next week to get ready for the game.”
New England’s 6-foot-6, 265-pound behemoth of a tight end was listed as questionable hours before he took the field. Despite missing playing time this week with a recurring knee injury, the sixth-year player suited up, hauled in seven receptions, logged 83 yards and recorded two touchdowns. As Gronkowski put it: “The chemistry was clicking tonight.”
His second touchdown, the eighth of his playoff career, broke a tie between him, Dave Casper and Vernon Davis for the all-time lead in postseason receiving touchdowns by a tight end.
This iteration of the New England Patriots, like each since the franchise selected him with the 42nd overall pick of the 2010 NFL draft, incorporates him heavily in the flow of the offense. He led the team in targets (120), receptions (72), receiving yards (1,176) and yards per catch (16.3) during the regular season. It was the second straight year he eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving. Saturday, ESPN.com noted, he was on the field for 54 of the team’s 59 offensive snaps, missing only kneel-downs. Put simply: There is no tight end in the NFL like Gronkowski, and New England knows it, which is precisely why offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels works feverishly to get him the ball as much as possible.
Saturday’s installment was the 37th game of his professional career in which he amassed at least 80 yards receiving; New England is 30-7 when he reaches that mark. When he has a multi-touchdown receiving performance, the Patriots are 15-1. Unsurprisingly, when the team stumbled to the finish line of the regular season, dropping the final two games to teams who failed to qualify for the playoffs, he produced a combined six receptions.
In wins this season, he’s seeing, on average, 0.5 more targets, hauling in 1.2 more receptions, amassing 18.1 more receiving yards and accounting for 0.59 more touchdowns.
Brady threw for 302 yards Saturday against the league’s fifth-best pass defense, per Football Outsiders — a secondary that hadn’t allowed an opponent to eclipse 300 yards in more than three months. New England’s offense has been intermittently potent this season — much of which can be traced back to an injury-riddled backfield — but should the franchise hope to continue its success this postseason, it should do whatever it can to ensure its elite tight end gets the ball.