PITTSBURGH — Last Monday, a suspended Rob Gronkowski was forced to watch from afar as his New England Patriots struggled in all three phases in an upset loss to the Miami Dolphins.
While the Patriots certainly could have used Gronkowski in that ugly defeat, perhaps having him sit out a game late in the season wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Because the Gronk that took the field Sunday at Heinz Field resembled a mix between Superman and The Incredible Hulk.
Gronkowski was ruthlessly effective in the Patriots’ most important game of the 2017 season to date, catching nine passes on 13 targets for a career-high 168 yards as New England slipped past the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 in an instant classic.
“He’s a beast, baby,” said running back Dion Lewis, who scored the game-winning touchdown with 56 seconds remaining. “He had a week off, he was probably feeling good out there (Sunday). Knowing Gronk, I knew he was going to come out good. He got a whole week off. Got to eat.”
Gronkowski didn’t just eat — he devoured, gobbling up yardage against a shorthanded Steelers defense that was playing without linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Joe Haden. After picking up 2 yards on his first reception, Gronkowski’s final eight catches went for 31, 22, 10, 17, 17, 26, 26 and 17 yards, with a drawn pass interference and a successful two-point conversion thrown in for good measure.
More than half of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s 298 passing yards came on throws to Gronkowski.
“He was doing it himself,” said Brady, who did not have injured wide receiver Chris Hogan at his disposal Sunday. “I think they were trying to challenge us, and he made a lot of good plays. Other guys make a lot of good plays, too, but when he’s open, he gets it. It was just a great game by him. He played so, so great.”
“Even when Rob’s covered,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick added,” he’s open.”
Gronkowski was at his very best on New England’s final drive. Trailing by five with just over two minutes to play, Brady looked Gronkowski’s way on four consecutive snaps. The first pass was nearly intercepted. The final three resulted in three completions for 69 yards, eliciting wild celebrations from the big tight end and setting up Lewis’ game-winning score.
“It was easily the best tight end performance I’ve ever seen live,” said fellow Patriots tight end Dwayne Allen, who insisted reporters call Gronkowski “Gronk GOAT.” “That final drive, that last (catch) that he took off his toes — incredible. 6-foot-7 guys aren’t supposed to do stuff like that. But of course, Rob Gronkowski did.”
Steelers safety Sean Davis was in coverage on Gronkowski during all four of those pass plays, as well as the two-point conversion that followed Lewis’ 8-yard touchdown run. Gronkowski breezed past the overmatched defensive back to add the extra scoring cushion, then proceeded to laugh in his face.
“I love getting in that zone,” said Gronkowski, who called his post-catch flexing “spontaneous.” “I wish I could be like that 24/7, every week and every day.”
The Patriots wouldn’t mind that, either. Thanks in large part to Gronk’s heroics — and the game-sealing interception by safety Duron Harmon that followed an overturned Steelers touchdown — they now occupy the driver’s seat in the AFC for the first time all season, well on their way to a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.