BOSTON (CBS) — The last few weeks have been kind of like a roller coaster for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Given the tight end’s youthful personality, one would think such a ride would be a blast — or rather, “super fun” as Gronkowski would likely put it. But it wasn’t much fun last Monday night when he had to sit out New England’s disappointing loss to the Dolphins in Miami, the result of Gronkowski’s one-game suspension for a late and dirty hit on Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White in Week 13.
Gronkowski’s emotions were flying high all last week after feeling that he let his teammates down, and he was determined to make it up to them when he returned to the field Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.
Gronkowski did just that in what was considered to be the Super Bowl of the regular season, dominating with a career-high 168 receiving yards on nine catches. He saved his best for last, snagging three catches for 69 yards and a two-point conversion on New England’s comeback drive in the final minutes. When Gronk is going, the Patriots offense is a nearly unstoppable force.
“I love getting in that zone. It feels good,” Gronkowski said with his boyish smile after the win. “I wish I could be like that 24-7, every week, every day. That would be cool if we were built like that.”
Down 24-19, Tom Brady and his offense took over at their own 23-yard line with 2:06 remaining. Brady threw four passes on the drive, with all four of them heading to his reliable tight end. Brady went Gronk’s way on first down, but his pass was tipped at the line and went behind his target, nearly falling into the hands of Pittsburgh safety Sean Davis. What could have been a career moment for Davis was the beginning of a horrendous stretch for the defensive back, who will be having nightmares of a giant 87 for the next few weeks.
Instead of a game-ending pick, Brady and Gronkowski had new life and they made Davis and the Steelers defense pay. The duo connected on the next three plays (with Davis “attempting” to cover Gronkowski); a pair of 26-yard hookups over the middle before an amazing shoestring grab by Gronk for 17 yards down to the Pittsburgh 8-yard line. Dion Lewis rushed it in on the next play, and the Patriots were owners of a three-point lead when Brady hit Gronkowski in the corner of the end zone on a fade route for the two-point conversion.
It capped off yet another comeback drive orchestrated by Brady, and a downright dominating stretch for Gronkowski, but the ride wasn’t over. With the offense now on the sideline with 56 seconds left, there were a few more dips and loopty loops to go. The Steelers marched into the red zone in one play, a 69-yard connection between Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster. The Steelers appeared to have the lead a few seconds later, but the potential game-winning touchdown by tight end Jesse James was taken off the board after a video review. The wild ride finally ended when the Patriots defense picked off Roethlisberger in the end zone after a ridiculous fake spike.
Even a wordsmith like Rob Gronkowski had a tough time summing up those dramatic final few minutes.
“The emotions were up and down on that last drive, that last defensive drive. It was like a roller-coaster,” Gronkowski recalled. “They get first, second down in the red zone. You’re down, and then you’re up and then you’re up again. You’re down because you think [Eli Rogers] catches it [in the end zone], but then the ball pops up in the air and you are like, ‘Ohh!’ and then we intercept it. The ride ended very well.”
Brady said after the game that even 50-50 balls to Gronkowski tend to skew in the tight end’s favor.
“They’re more like 95-5,” Brady joked. “He played a hell of a game. That guy fights his ass off every day and I’m happy for him and happy for our team. Now we have to go take care of business next week at home.”
A whole new roller coaster awaits Gronkowski next Sunday, when the Patriots welcome the Bills to Gillette Stadium. Their division rival needs a win to hang on to the AFC’s final playoff spot, and they’ll also be looking for some revenge for Gronkowski’s antics from two weeks ago. The Bills will try everything they can to get Gronkowski out of his zone, and may even take things a little further.
But if he’s indeed learned his lesson from Week 13, Gronkowski knows it’s best when he lets his play do the talking. While the Bills will be out for revenge, Gronkowski and the Patriots will be looking to ice the No. 1 seed in the conference.