They're supposed to hit a rookie wall. Defenses are supposed to figure out their tendencies and exploit their weaknesses. They're not supposed to score three touchdowns on national television against the best team in the NFL.
Yet, the 21-year-old New York native did, as he was a key contributor in the Patriots' 39-26 win in Pittsburgh.
Gronkowski's rebound from a terrible performance the week before in Cleveland was impressive, but it was also the product of a weeklong, team-wide focus that makes that loss to the Browns seem like it happened in the distant past.
"Well, we're pretty good when we play and execute the right way, do the right thing, and when everyone's doing their job," said Tom Brady, who registered season highs in completions (30) and yards (350). "We got off to a fast start, played from ahead the whole game, and that's a big difference.
"Anything can happen each week, and we're 7-2 with a lot of football left."
Anything can happen each week, and it seems like anything has.
As soon as a team gets ranked as the best in the league, it seems that team is destined for a letdown. It's happened to the Steelers, Giants, Ravens and Patriots — all teams that suffered fairly disappointing losses after gaining popular support as the NFL's best.
Yet, good teams lose. Great teams lose and bounce back. We don't know what kind of team the 2010 Patriots will be, but Sunday night's performance was reason for optimism in New England.
Still, as has been the staple of New England Patriots football since Bill Belichick took over, there wasn't too much room for satisfaction in the locker room.
"I think we did a lot of good things out there, … [but] I think there were some frustrating times, too," said Wes Welker, who matched his season high in receptions (8) and set a season high in yards (89). "We were up 10-0 and we wanted to put more points on the board, and we weren't able to. It's a little bit frustrating with the penalties and other stuff."
A "little bit frustrating" is a whole lot better than what the Patriots were dealing with a week earlier — something Vince Wilfork called "embarrassing."
"I think everybody did a good job of coming to work and putting the Cleveland game behind us and focusing on the Steelers," Wilfork said after doing a number on rookie center Maurkice Pouncey most of the night. "We did well. We prepared well. Guys came ready to work."
In the middle of all of that was Gronkowski. A week earlier, he ran away from a kickoff after calling for a fair catch, leading to a crushing turnover early in the game. Just before halftime, he fumbled away points at the Cleveland 3-yard line.
After the game, he was given credit by the media and fans for facing the music and owning up to his mistakes. Even though that kick return gaffe was likely just as much Sammy Morris' fault as it was Gronkowski's, the rookie simply stated that he screwed up and needed to do better.
Words, though, are just words, and what was much more encouraging for the career of Gronkowski was his performance the following week: five catches, 72 yards, three touchdowns.
"When you get the opportunity," Gronkowski said, "you have to step up."
He, along with just about every one of his teammates, did just that.
The convincing victory came after a week when most folks in the NFL world were (rightfully) questioning the Patriots. A week after topping just about every power rankings list in the country, the Patriots fell out of favor quickly with analysts. Their run defense was pathetic, Brady wasn't the same and the running game, with nobodies like BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, was an absolute joke.
That same run defense held Rashard Mendenhall to 50 yards. Brady had perhaps his best game of the season. Green-Ellis carved up the vaunted Steelers run defense for 87 yards — which is more than Pittsburgh had allowed any team to rush all season long.
It's not a coincidence that the Patriots responded with their best win of the season — not unlike their victory in Miami in Week 4, which was fueled (at least in part) by the experts at Patriots Football Weekly unanimously picking the Dolphins to win in that Monday night matchup.
It's the type of formula that Belichick and Brady used to win three Super Bowls. The team unquestionably thrives on an "us-against-the-world" mentality, and though almost everyone in this current group of players wasn't there for those championships, the team personality remains the same.
It may never have been on display more than it was in the 2001 AFC Championship Game, after the Patriots had learned the Steelers had already booked their flights and hotel rooms in New Orleans for the Super Bowl. Needless to say, that didn't go over too well with the Patriots, who beat the heavily favored Steelers 24-17 that day. It was back on display in that very same building (albeit in a matchup of slightly less significance) on Sunday night.
When every analyst starts doubting their abilities, the Patriots play their best football. If they want to maintain the best record in the NFL and build a bit of a winning streak, they may want to avoid reading the papers this week.
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