FOXBORO, Mass. — With less than a minute remaining in the most thrilling game of the NFL season to date, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady looked to his right and saw Josh Shaw in 1-on-1 coverage on Rob Gronkowski.
A backup safety who’d just been signed by the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks ago against the greatest tight end of all time.
Brady knew Gronkowski would win that matchup. And he was right.
Lined up in the slot, big No. 87 powered through Shaw’s attempt to jam him at the line, quickly gaining separation as he tore down the seam. Brady’s perfect pass landed squarely in Gronkowski’s outstretched hands, resulting in a 39-yard gain that put the Patriots in field-goal range.
Two plays later, Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 28-yarder as time expired, capping a 5-for-5 night for the veteran kicker and giving the Patriots a hard-fought 43-40 victory at Gillette Stadium.
“The big play to Gronk — he got a matchup and made a big play,” Brady said after the game. “He?s been making a lot of those in his career. I?ll keep throwing to him in the biggest moments.”
In an unexpected development, Brady threw Gronkowski’s way just four times Sunday night — surprising considering Kansas City’s Gronk-stopping safety, Eric Berry, and his primary backup, Eric Murray, both were sidelined with injuries. Gronkowski caught one pass for 16 yards late in the first quarter, then wasn’t targeted again until late in the fourth.
The four-time All-Pro made the most of his fleeting chances, though.
Gronkowski’s second reception, which came on New England’s penultimate possession of the night, was a 42-yard catch-and-run that featured a vicious stiff-arm to the face of safety Ron Parker.
The big gain preceded a 50-yard Gostkowski field goal that gave New England a seven-point lead. One snap later, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes connected with wide receiver Tyreek Hill on a 75-yard touchdown, setting the stage for the dramatic finish.
Gronkowski’s third reception — the 500th of his illustrious career — was the aforementioned 39-yarder. He finished with three catches on four targets for a team-high 97 yards in the win.
“It was a really good throw,” said wide receiver Chris Hogan, who was lined up to the right of Gronkowski on his final reception. “With Rob being in there, I knew that he had a chance of getting the ball. He ran a great route and set our offense up for the game-winning field goal.”
Though he has no found the end zone since Week 1 and frequently faces double coverage, Gronkowski, who did not speak with reporters after the game, has been the Patriots’ most productive pass-catcher this season, tallying 26 receptions for 405 yards and one touchdown through six weeks.
“Rob gave us a lot of big plays blocking and receiving,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He got the single coverage on the seam on the last play. The other play was kind of off of a play-action, kind of rub play so we got it free and then Rob did a great job running with the ball. He stiff-armed a couple of tacklers, added some extra yards there on his own.”