Reimer: Brady-Gronk delivers one more time, and it is perfect way for 'underdog' Patriots to return to Super Bowl

Alex Reimer
January 20, 2019 - 11:56 pm
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Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski are not underdogs. But they’ve been pronounced dead every step of the way this season.

And now, the Patriots are returning to the Super Bowl on their backs.

Brady led the Patriots on three late-game touchdown drives against the Chiefs in their improbable 37-31 victory. He went 11-for-16 for 147 yards during that stretch, including 5-for-6 on third downs. On those five third down throws, Brady hit Gronkowski three times for 51 yards and Julian Edelman twice for 35 yards.

New England's final two drives each featured a vintage third-down completion to Gronk. The first one, with 54 seconds left in regulation, was a fade down the right sideline for 25 yards. Gronk beat All-Pro safety Eric Berry, who got away with mauling him on a pass route earlier in the half. Gronkowski could not draw a pass interference call, just like old times. 

It was a throwback performance all around.

Then in overtime, following two Brady third-down strikes to Edelman over the middle of the Chiefs’ swiss cheese defense –– one for 20 yards, the other for 15 –– Gronkowski beat Berry on a slant on 3rd-and-10 to move the Patriots to the 15-yard line. They were in the end zone two Rex Burkhead runs later. Burkhead’s two touchdown runs propelled the Patriots to their incredible win. 

Gronkowski finished with six receptions for 79 yards in total. 

On those plays, Gronkowski shifted to his additional role as the team’s third offensive tackle –– plowing holes for Burkhead to run through. Gronkowski’s exceptional blocking ability is the reason he remains the best tight end in football, and yes, better than Travis Kelce, who was largely invisible outside of his 12-yard touchdown grab in the second quarter. Kelce finished with three catches for 23 yards. He caught eight passes for 84 yards in two games against the Pats this season. I wonder if Booger McFarland still thinks Kelce is better than Gronkowski. 

It’s unfair to single out McFarland. This was the year to pile on Gronk, and for much of it, there was good reason to. He teased retirement after the Super Bowl and didn’t formally commit to returning until the NFL Draft. In between, Gronkowski tweeted cryptic “Juicy J” lyrics –– yes, there is such a thing –– and conducted a bizarre MotorCross press conference in the bowels of Gillette Stadium. He told Danny Amendola to be “happy and free.” 

Belichick confidante Mike Lombardi ignited the in-season criticism of Gronkowski, declaring in September the tight end had lost his burst. And for much of the campaign, Gronkowski played like it. He battled back and ankle injuries and recorded his fewest number of receptions since his rookie season. This lackluster production prompted widespread speculation about Gronk’s state of mind, and Rex Ryan to declare he looks like he's running with a piano on his back.

Not anymore. Gronk did carry multiple Chargers defenders on his 23-yard reception in the Divisional Round, however, picking up several yards after the catch on a third-down conversion.

The Patriots went 13-for-19 on third down Sunday, including their first five. In the first half, it was Brady checking into hand-offs to James White at the line of scrimmage, outsmarting the Chiefs’ defense. Later on, he found his two old reliables, Gronk and Edelman. It is a big reason why he was 6-of-8 on 3rd-and-6 or longer.

What does that do for his declining third-down completion rate, Mike Tanier?

It’s worth noting the tone of his column would probably be different if Dee Ford didn’t jump offside when the ball bounced off Gronk’s hands and into the outstretched arms of Charvarius Ward on the Patriots’ second fourth quarter touchdown drive. But oh well. Brady and Gronk made the most of their extra lives. 

It looks like they have a few more left. 

Related: Patriots 37 Chiefs 31: Patriots head to third straight Super Bowl

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