FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Individual performances rarely overshadow team accomplishments in New England.
Of course, individual performances rarely lead quite as directly to team accomplishments as was the case Sunday evening in Pittsburgh when Rob Gronkowski put the Patriots on his back to will New England to the exciting, controversial 27-24 victory over the Steelers.
It was a critical performance in a critical win to give head coach Bill Belichick’s team the inside track to the No. 1 seed in the postseason on another potential Super Bowl run.
Gronkowski caught nine passes for 168 yards, hauling in seven of the Patriots’ 10 longest plays of the day. He was at his best with the game on the line, catching three straight balls totaling 69 yards to move New England from its own 23 into position for Dion Lewis’ go-ahead, 8-yard touchdown in the final two minutes.
Gronkowski then beat Steelers safety Sean Davis for a two-point conversion, which meant Pittsburgh couldn’t win on a field goal in its ensuing attempted comeback effort.
By once again taking care of business against Mike Tomlin’s team, New England clinched its ninth straight AFC East title and took a key step toward trying to defend its Super Bowl title.
But from Tom Brady to Belichick, all those in the celebratory visitors locker room at Heinz Field agreed that Gronkowski was the story, coming back from his one-game suspension for his dirty hit on Tre’Davious White in the Week 13 game in Buffalo to dominate the day.
Forget Antonio Brown leaving with a calf injury. Forget the controversial replay overturning a would-be Jesse James game-winning score for Pittsburgh. Forget Ben Roethlisberger’s ill-advised fake spike and subsequent interception at the goal line with less than 10 seconds to play in a three-point game.
It was Gronk’s day.
“Gronk GOAT! Gronk GOAT!” Patriots backup tight end Dwayne Allen exclaimed for all to hear in the postgame locker room. “It was one of the greatest tight end performances I’ve ever seen, where he totally put the team on his back. He’s 6-7 and he took it off his toes! He took it off his toes! You’re not supposed to do that at 6-7. He’s the GOAT.”
Allen was referring to a shoe-string catch that Gronkowski made for a 17-yard reception that set up the game-winning score.
According to Pro Football Focus’ grading system, Gronkowski — who also happened to have a huge block on Lewis’ touchdown run — had a perfect 99.9 grade for the game, just the 14th time a player has reached that number since the site’s inception in 2006.
“I have so much trust in him,” Brady said. “It may look like it’s 50-50, but it might be 95-5. You try and develop that chemistry over time, and Gronk’s earned it.”
A day later, after breaking down film of the key win’s key plays, Belichick reiterated something he said in the immediacy of the victory in Pittsburgh — Gronkowski is really open even when he’s not.
Belichick emphasized that point discussing that 17-yard catch to set up the touchdown, his final reception of the day.
“His catch radius is outstanding. His hands and his catch radius are two of the things that make him so difficult to cover that even when a defender is on him and he can be draped all over him, there’s some place where the ball can be located that Rob can get it and the defender can’t,” Belichick said. “Tom does a good job of putting it there and Rob does a good job of catching it.”
With help from endless others in some truly impressive situational football, Brady and Gronkowski led the Patriots to yet another victory.
New England will always be about team accomplishments under Belichick, but every once in awhile all involved note the contributions of someone like Gronkowski, who leads the team with 64 catches for 1,071 yards and seven touchdowns despite missing two games.
“He was doing it himself,” Brady said of Gronkowski’s dominant finish in Pittsburgh, before getting back to a more traditional, focused view of things. “He played a hell of a game. That guy fights his ass off every day and I’m happy for him and happy for our team. Now we have to go take care of business next week at home.”