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Rob Gronkowski’s Still-Crucial Role in the Patriots Offense and Week 12’s Game-Changing Plays

New England’s star tight end finally broke his touchdown drought, the Ravens are still figuring out how to balance Lamar Jackson’s passing with his rushing, and Seattle’s passing offense may just mean the team is postseason-ready

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL’s Week 12 Sunday slate didn’t look great on paper but managed to produce its fair share of fun games. Yeah, there were a few blowouts—the Browns overwhelmed the Bengals, the Patriots dominated the Jets, the Buccaneers beat the 49ers, the Ravens ran past the Raiders, and the Chargers easily dispatched the Cardinals—but those games were buoyed by a bevy of exciting, nail-biting matchups. The Seahawks prevailed in a must-win bout with the Panthers, surging ahead of Carolina in the NFC wild-card race. The Eagles overcame a 16-point first-half deficit to beat the Giants and keep their playoff hopes alive; Andrew Luck led the Colts back from a 10-point fourth-quarter hole to knock off the Dolphins and keep climbing in the AFC playoff picture; the Broncos picked off Ben Roethlisberger in the end zone late to preserve a win; the Josh Allen–led Bills surged past the reeling Jaguars to win at home; and the Vikings held off the Packers in a 24-17 win on Sunday Night Football.

Sunday’s action delivered plenty of wild plays, but a few moments stood out as more pivotal or illuminating than the rest. Here’s a handful of the biggest game-changing plays, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the season at large.

Rob Gronkowski’s Drought-Breaking TD

The Patriots stumbled out of the gates Sunday, and the Jets capitalized by forcing a first-possession punt and scoring on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead. New York’s defense appeared to stymie New England’s second drive late in the first quarter, too, as Tom Brady missed Julian Edelman deep on a third-and-2 from the Jets’ 24-yard line and running back James White was called for offensive pass interference. But, believing New England would go for it—and evidently not liking his odds on that type of play—Jets head coach Todd Bowles accepted the penalty on White and gave Brady another third-down try. That backfired badly: On third-and-12, Brady found Gronkowski on a seam route up the middle for the score.

The Patriots—still reeling from their Week 10 blowout loss to the Titans—were in need of a spark, and Gronkowski gave them one. After missing two games due to a back injury, Gronk returned to the field with gusto, splitting a pair of defenders to go up high for the first-quarter touchdown grab. Gronk, who ended a career-high six-game skid without finding paydirt, was crucial to the team’s at times sloppy, but confidence-boosting performance Sunday. He played the first 31 offensive snaps and helped to breathe new life into a stagnant group: Gronkowski’s numbers don’t stand out—he finished with three catches on seven targets for 56 yards and a score—but his impact on the New England offense shined through.

When Gronk wasn’t being targeted, the double-teams he attracted helped to open things up for his teammates. Edelman was a prime beneficiary, reeling in four catches for 84 yards and a score, while Josh Gordon chipped in with five catches for 70 yards. Gronk, who remains one of the best blocking tight ends in the game, provided a boost to the team’s pass-protecting offensive line, too, and was a force in the ground game by helping to open up big run lanes or seal off second-level defenders to spring the team’s running backs. With Sony Michel (21 carries for 133 yards, one touchdown) leading the way, New England’s rush attack salted the game away in the second half and took pressure off a banged-up Brady as the Patriots totaled 215 yards on 36 totes (6.0 yards per carry).

Gronkowski may no longer be the same player he was early in his career, but the big mismatch creator can still stress a defense and bury defenders in the run game. Sunday, he proved he’s still a linchpin to the team’s success.

Lamar Jackson’s Bootleg TD

Baltimore unveiled a new-look scheme in Lamar Jackson’s second start as a pro, shifting from what had been a heavy-volume passing offense under Joe Flacco to an extraordinary run-first focus, with the dual-threat QB running the ball a modern era–record 26 times for 119 yards in Week 11. This strategy set Jackson up for success, easing him into the passing game while boosting the team’s anemic run game with a throng of read-option plays and designed QB carries.

In the Ravens’ 34-17 drubbing of the Raiders on Sunday, the team held true to its promise that more passing was coming, but seemed to badly overcorrect on that front, particularly in the first half. Jackson carried the ball just twice in the first two frames, picking up 11 yards. He was up and down in that stretch as a passer, completing nine of 18 first-half passes for 140 yards—including this 74-yard pickup to tight end Mark Andrews—but he also threw two picks. And after carrying a slim 13-10 lead into the half, Baltimore changed course as the third quarter kicked off and unleashed Jackson as a runner.

The rookie QB completed five of eight passes for 38 yards and a touchdown in the second half—a line that would’ve looked a whole lot better had one long completion to John Brown not been negated by a hold—and also used his legs to help unlock the team’s sluggish offense, carrying the ball nine times for 60 yards and a score. This third-quarter touchdown run came on a designed bootleg to the left, giving Baltimore a 20-10 lead and boosting its win probability to 88 percent.

The Ravens coasted from there. Jackson finished the game with a tepid passing line—14-of-25 for 178 yards, with one touchdown and two picks—but added 11 rushes for 71 yards and a score. Jackson’s second-half performance pushed his rushing total over the past two games to 190 yards, most in the Super Bowl era for a quarterback’s first two starts, and illustrated how important it is for Baltimore to strike a balance between the run and pass with the young rookie signal-caller.

Jackson’s ability as a runner is integral to the success of the team’s entire offense, especially this early in his career. A read-option-heavy approach is what Jackson’s most comfortable with at this point; it stresses defenses, who must dedicate more players to the box, and it pairs well with the team’s play-action passing game. Jackson’s legs also make the Ravens run game infinitely more effective. Baltimore’s now posted 509 rushing yards with three touchdowns in the past two weeks, dominating time of possession in both matchups and, most importantly, winning both. There’s always an injury risk in letting Jackson loose as a runner, but Jackson’s legs, when used judiciously, completely change the Ravens offense. Baltimore simply can’t ignore that.

Going forward, the Ravens seem content to stay quiet on who their starter will be once Flacco is healthy enough to play. That’s smart; it’ll force teams to prepare for two completely separate styles of offense. Still, it’s becoming increasingly clear that even when Flacco can play, the Ravens are more dynamic with Jackson under center.

David Moore’s Fourth-Down TD

This game—and really, Seattle’s playoff hopes—hinged on one fourth-quarter play, with the Seahawks down 27-20 and facing a fourth-and-3 from the Panthers’ 35-yard line with 3:33 to go. Russell Wilson received the snap from a shotgun formation, dropped back, looked to his right, then looked to his left and threw it up toward the corner of the end zone. Second-year receiver David Moore fended off his defender, separated at the very last second, and reeled the pass in with one hand.

It was a ballsy play that boosted the Seahawks’ win probability by 37.8 percent (from 9 percent on the previous play to 46.8 percent after) and was flawless on almost all accounts for Seattle: The line, along with running back Mike Davis and tight end Ed Dickson, picked up the Carolina blitz and gave Wilson time to go to his second read. Wilson threw a perfectly placed pass. And Moore made a tough catch look easy. That superb execution tied the game—and after Carolina kicker Graham Gano missed a 52-yard field goal attempt on the Panthers’ ensuing drive, the Seahawks took advantage. Wilson put Seattle into field goal range at the 1:07 mark with this 43-yard bomb to Tyler Lockett.

After kneeling twice then spiking it to stop the clock, the Seahawks sent Sebastian Janikowski out to kick the game-winner. His field goal sailed through, pushing Seattle to 6-5 and out in front of the Panthers in the NFC wild-card hunt.

Moore’s touchdown and Lockett’s big game-changing catch represented departures from the Seahawks’ typical winning formula this year. The Panthers suffocated Seattle’s foundational rushing attack, holding it to just 75 yards on 28 totes—an average of just 2.7 yards per carry—while snapping the team’s seven-game streak of compiling 150-plus rushing yards. According to running back Chris Carson—who faced an eight-plus-man box on 50 percent of his carries Sunday, second most leaguewide—the Panthers were so keyed in on the Seattle running game that they even called out a couple of the team’s plays. In effect, Carolina dared the Seahawks to throw the ball; Wilson and the team’s underrated playmaking receivers proved they were up to the challenge. Wilson finished 22-for-31 for 339 yards and two touchdowns. Despite relying on a pass-heavy approach in the second half, the Seahawks scored on their final five drives.

Seattle passed an important test Sunday: It proved it can still score points—and win—when the run game isn’t working.

David Njoku Somehow Ends Up in the End Zone

While the Browns’ playoff hopes are still technically alive after Cleveland beat the Bengals 35-20 oSunday to improve to 4-6-1, this team is probably best viewed from a longer-term perspective. That is to say, the talent base general manager John Dorsey has built in Cleveland is starting to grow together, and, as the team’s Twitter account so eloquently put it, they’re (finally, mercifully) so much fun.

It was hard not to smile watching tight end Njoku’s ill-advised decision to take off and dive from the 5-yard line … actually work. That hilarious touchdown gave Cleveland a 21-0 lead, pushed its win probability to a cool 89 percent, and capped an 11-play drive that started at the Browns’ 4-yard line. That throw to Djoku was relatively easy for Baker Mayfield, but to get to that point he had to convert on three crucial third downs: a 9-yard pass to Jarvis Landry on a third-and-3 from the Cleveland 11, a 21-yard completion to Antonio Callaway on a third-and-11 from the 19, and a 24-yard pass to Njoku on third-and-1 from the 49. Mayfield leaned on his young cadre of playmakers on that drive, and then again later in the quarter when he found running back Nick Chubb at the end of a 12-play, 59-yard touchdown drive to push the team’s lead to 28-0. The foundation of the franchise’s future is becoming clear.

Mayfield finished the game 19-for-26 for 258 yards and four touchdowns, notching a 143.9 passer rating. Combined with his 151.2 passer rating in the team’s pre-bye win over the Falcons two weeks ago, he became the first rookie (minimum 20 attempts) to post back-to-back games with a 140-plus passer rating. The Browns offense has come alive under interim play-caller Freddie Kitchens, who’s helped out Mayfield with a heavy dose of quick, easy reads designed to create rhythm, get the ball out, and avoid pressure. The Browns have gone two straight games without allowing a sack for the first time since 2007. For the first time in what feels like forever, this offense seems headed in the right direction.

Andrew Luck Converts on Third-and-9

The Colts came close to squandering a golden opportunity late in their 27-24 comeback win over the Dolphins on Sunday. After an Andrew Luck pass to Eric Ebron tied the game at 24 with 4:30 to go, Indy’s defense stopped Miami on its subsequent drive, giving Luck the ball at his own 42-yard line with 2:38 remaining. The ensuing series did not get off to a strong start: Running back Nyheim Hines lost 2 yards on first down, and Luck dumped it off to his rookie back on second down, gaining just 3 yards to set up a third-and-9. Then, on the most important play of the game, the Dolphins showed Luck a look that he’d seen on tape only one other time this year. “I was confused,” he said in the postgame presser. “There was a little ‘Oh s—t [moment].’”

After the snap, Luck looked to his right. With nothing coming open, he pump-faked before somehow escaping to his left to avoid the sack. From there he improvised, as head coach Frank Reich admitted after the game.

Luck stepped up in the pocket and saw Chester Rogers come open deep down the left sideline. He threw across his body on the run, showing no ill effects from his surgically repaired shoulder. Rogers corralled the pass for what ended up being the game-sealing first down; four plays later, Adam Vinatieri hit a field goal to give the Colts their fifth straight win.

Luck’s renaissance this season can be attributed, in large part, to the team’s new offensive design. Reich has put together a scheme that both stresses the deep parts of the field and severely cuts down on the number of hits Luck takes by heavily using running backs and tight ends in the underneath passing game. While the team’s five-game sackless streak came to a close Sunday, Luck kept thriving. On a make-or-break play late in the fourth quarter, when Indy desperately needed a first down to avoid giving the Dolphins a chance to mount a game-winning drive, Luck also showed he can still do it all himself. That combination of scheme and pure playmaking talent is going to make the Colts offense very dangerous down the stretch.