For big chunks of Rob Gronkowski’s eight-year career, Tom Brady and the Patriots have reaped the many benefits that come with featuring one of the most unstoppable players in the history of the game as one of the focal points of their passing offense. Gronk has broken double digits on his touchdown totals in five seasons and has been on the receiving end of a touchdown pass a league-best 75 times since he came into the league. And as we saw late in the Patriots’ 27-24 win over the Steelers on Sunday, he still has the ability to completely take over a game. But while New England has won plenty of games because of the matchup nightmare that Gronk creates for opposing defenses, the lengthy list of injuries that have kept him off the field for stretches of each of the past six seasons has meant that the team has also gotten plenty of experience winning without him, too.
Last year, the Pats won eight straight games after Gronkowski hit the injured reserve in early December with a lower-back injury—including conference playoff matchups with the Texans and Steelers and the incredible come-from-behind victory in Super Bowl LI. Without Gronkowski, New England relied on Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, James White, and Martellus Bennett in the passing attack and leaned a little harder on the ground game with LeGarrette Blount and Dion Lewis. But this year, Edelman and Bennett are on the shelf, and outside of newcomer Brandin Cooks, the lack of depth at the offensive skill positions has meant that New England doesn’t have the same margin for error as it did during its Super Bowl run last winter. Gronkowski will be more important to Brady in the team’s upcoming postseason run than he’s ever been.
That’s never been more clear than it was in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game. Trailing 24-19 with 2:06 remaining, Brady engineered a five-play, 77-yard touchdown drive—and Gronk contributed 69 of those yards before Dion Lewis punched the ball in for the go-ahead score. The Steelers simply had no answer for the big mismatch-maker, who, as CBS Sports’ Josh Cohen put it, strung together “perhaps the greatest five consecutive plays by a non-QB” we’ve seen this year (or maybe ever). On the first, a second-and-10 from New England’s 23-yard line, Gronk beat Steelers safety Sean Davis off the line with a jab step outside before running a deep post route up the middle of the field. After avoiding pressure, Brady found him for a gain of 26 yards. The Patriots were in business.
On the next play, Brady found Gronk up the seam again. Pittsburgh blitzed out of the slot but pressure didn’t get home quickly enough, and the future Hall of Famer climbed the pocket to Gronkowski for another gain of 26 yards.
With two big plays, the Patriots had moved to the Steelers’ 25-yard line. Gronkowski lined up in the left slot for the third straight play, running slowly upfield before cutting to his right to gain separation from Davis. Brady again avoided pressure and lobbed a pass toward where his tight end was running. Gronkowski stooped down and made a spectacular shoe-string grab.
It was an unbelievable diving catch that’s even more impressive when considering how big Gronk is. As teammate Dwayne Allen put it, “that last (catch) that he took off his toes—incredible. 6-foot-7 guys aren’t supposed to do stuff like that.” It had set the Patriots up at the 8-yard line with 1:09 left, and on the next play, Gronk was again crucial, this time as a blocker. At the snap, he turned to his right and completely sealed Pittsburgh defensive end Stephon Tuitt out of the play, opening up an easy scoring lane for Lewis (Allen got a key block on the run, too).
That touchdown put the Patriots up by one point with 56 seconds remaining, so head coach Bill Belichick called for a two-point conversion. Naturally, the ball was always going to go to Gronkowski, who lined up on the wing. Gronk faked inside before fading back toward the corner of the end zone, where his combination of size and initial quickness made it almost too easy.
The game ended in controversy, of course, but along with the NFL’s catch rule, Gronkowski was crucial to New England’s huge win. He finished with a career-high 168 yards receiving on nine catches, with his final four grabs (including that two-point conversion) the most clutch. Pittsburgh simply could not match up with the combination of size and power that Gronk brings as a pass catcher down the seam and in the red zone. He’s not the fastest guy in the world, and at this point in his career, he lumbers more than he runs:
Gronkowski is like if a telephone pole was good at football— Tom Crabtree (@itsCrab) December 18, 2017
But the fact remains: No one can guard him. As Belichick put it after the win, “Even when Rob is covered, he’s still open.” It’s hard to overstate how important that type of weapon can be in this team’s injury-riddled offense, which looked like a shell of itself without Gronkowski in the two games he’s missed this year. In the first (which he missed because of a thigh injury), the Patriots squeaked out a 19-14 win in Tampa Bay. The second (which he missed because of a suspension after an awful late hit on Bills corner Tre’Davious White) was New England’s disaster in Miami two weeks ago.
Those two games represent the Pats’ two lowest point totals of the year. No amount of scheming around the loss of their All-Pro was enough—the offense just hasn’t been close to the same without Gronkowski. Brady is still going to give New England a chance in just about every game, but the 40-year-old remains damn near unstoppable only with Gronk on the field. More than in any of the Patriots’ previous playoff appearances, the tight end could be the key to a New England championship run. Without him, the Patriots haven’t been just slightly worse, they’ve been downright vulnerable. But with a healthy Gronkowski in the lineup, they look like a team that can beat anybody.