By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In a Super Bowl where offense was desperately needed, Rob Gronkowski delivered two of the biggest plays of the game.
Knotted in a 3-3 tie in the fourth quarter, Gronkowski faked as if he was blocking before bursting past Samson Ebukam to get open for a picture-perfect 18-yard catch-and-run. Three plays later, Gronkowski sprawled out to make a diving catch in traffic to set up the Patriots at the 2-yard line, where they’d score the lone touchdown of the game en route to beating the Rams, 13-3.
That Gronkowski did this was not shocking. He is one of the most dominant tight ends in football history, after all. But considering the relative down year Gronkowski had in the passing game, his postseason was nevertheless a reminder to the world that when needed, Gronkowski can still be Gronk.
In the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, Gronkowski hauled in six catches for 79 yards, with four of those receptions resulting in first downs, and with five of those receptions coming on scoring drives. That included a massive third-and-5 play that saw him rise up over Eric Berry in the fourth quarter to set up a go-ahead touchdown, and it included a third-and-10 play in overtime that once again got the Patriots into the red zone.
In the Super Bowl, he made the aforementioned two catches, the second of which might have been the play of the game.
Sunday night’s performance had its share of vintage Gronkowski moments, too. On a catch over the middle in the first quarter, he easily picked up 10 extra yards despite the presence of a handful of defenders.
And he was, as usual, essentially perfect in his role as a blocker. He was a key blocker on the touchdown that immediately followed his diving catch — a touchdown where the play was designed for Sony Michel to run directly at Gronkowski’s right hip:
That was just one of many blocks Gronkowski delivered to help his team win.
In addition to winning his second Super Bowl (though he is technically a three-time champion, for playing eight games in the 2016 season), Gronkowski completed a full regular season’s worth of playoff games. His numbers in those 16 playoff contests are eye-popping.
In 16 games, Gronkowski has caught 81 passes for 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Patriots are 12-4 in those games.
The numbers are impressive on their own, but they stand out even more when a few other factors are considered.
There is, of course, the obvious fact that in the playoffs, only the best teams are on the field. That should theoretically stop a tight end from putting up 1,163 receiving yards, but it has not stopped Gronkowski.
Even more impressive, though, is this: Gronkowski played Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants severely hobbled with an ankle injury, and he left the 2012 divisional round win over the Texans with a broken arm in the middle of the fourth quarter.
So really, Gronkowski’s played 14 playoff games, catching 79 passes for 1,137 yards and 12 touchdowns. If you were to pro-rate those numbers over a 16-game sampling (for whatever reason; we don’t judge here) you’d get 92 receptions for 1,299 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But that part’s not even necessary. Even if we count those two injury-impacted games, Gronkowski’s postseason totals of 81 receptions, 1,163 yards and 12 touchdowns would rank as perhaps the second greatest season of his entire career.
GRONK’S BEST SEASONS
2011: 90 rec., 1,327 yards, 17 TDs
PLAYOFFS: 81 rec., 1,167 yards, 12 TDs
2015: 72 rec., 1,176 yards, 11 TDs
2014: 92 rec., 1,124 yards, 12 TDs
2017: 69 rec., 1,084 yards, 8 TDs
When it comes time, years down the line, to tell the story of Rob Gronkowski, the playoff performance should probably be told first. For as much (much-deserved) talk as there’s recently been for Julian Edelman belonging in the Hall of Fame, Gronkowski’s standing in the postseason record books is remarkable.
Gronkowski ranks eighth all time in playoff receptions, and first among tight ends.
Gronkowski ranks ninth all time in playoff receiving yards, and first among tight ends.
Gronkowski ranks tied for second all time in playoff receiving touchdowns, once again first among tight ends.
In his last three Super Bowls, Gronkowski has averaged seven receptions and 90 receiving yards per game, while hauling in three touchdowns.
Gronkowski will, of course, go down as one of the best tight ends in the game. He’s got the numbers to prove his dominance, and even when those dipped this year, the world got a closer look at his powerful blocking ability — a rare trait for a tight end as involved in the pass game as Gronkowski.
Yet where Gronkowski has really separated himself from any and all other modern tight ends has been in the postseason. There will surely be arguments made that Tony Gonzalez and/or Shannon Sharpe and/or Antonio Gates and/or even Jason Witten were better tight ends than Gronkowski, based on longevity. But in terms of being a big-time player in big-time moments, all pale in comparison to No. 87 on the Patriots.
CAREER PLAYOFF STATS
Gronkowski: 16 games, 81 rec., 1,163 yards, 12 TDs
Dallas Clark: 12 games, 64 rec., 847 yards, 4 TDs
Sharpe: 18 games, 62 rec., 814 yards, 4 TDs
Gates: 12 games, 51 rec., 540 yards, 2 TDs
Witten: 8 games, 45 rec. 486 yards, 1 TD
Gonzalez: 7 games, 30 rec., 286 yards, 4 TDs
That Gronkowski has been able to do all of that despite his long injury history — a history which cost him nearly two full seasons’ worth of games in his nine-year career — speaks to how Gronkowski has been able to rise to the occasion of the postseason each and every time he gets the opportunity.
GRONKOWSKI’S BEST PLAYOFF GAMES (OPINION!)
1. 2015 @ Denver: 8 rec., 144 yards, TD
2. Super Bowl LII: 9 rec., 116 yards, 2 TDs
3. Super Bowl XLIX: 6 rec., 68 yards, TD
4. 2011 vs. Denver: 10 rec., 145 yards, 3 TDs
5. 2018 @ Kansas City: 6 rec., 79 yards
6. Super Bowl LIII: 6 rec., 87 yards
Looking ahead, we’re not sure if Gronkowski will ever play in another playoff game. He did let it slip to Jimmy Fallon the other night that his ability to dodge beer cans provided “good practice for next season,” but that might not mean anything. When asked directly about his future time and time again, both before the Super Bowl and after it, Gronkowski said he’d take some time to see how his body feels before making a decision.
What could follow is unknown. If he does return, he runs the risk that every player does of suffering an injury. Perhaps the unimaginable could happen and the Patriots fail to make the playoffs. Or, of course, he could retire.
There is a chance — however big, however small — that Gronkowski has played the final playoff game of his career. And if he has, he’ll do so having made his case as the greatest postseason tight end in NFL history.