The last playoff game Rob Gronkowski played in was a loss for the New England Patriots, the 2015 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos. But even though his team lost, Gronkowski demonstrated that day why he is the league's best tight end and one of the NFL's truly dominant offensive skill position players: He caught eight passes that day, for 144 yards and a score.
Fast forward two seasons and Gronkowski is about to play in his 11th playoff game – the first since helping his team almost complete the comeback against Denver. Since that game, the tight end had to battle trough an injury-riddled 2016 campaign that ultimately ended on injured reserve. From there, Gronkowski had to watch his teammates march all the way to the franchise's fifth Super Bowl title.
If the Patriots want to defend their place atop the pro football world, they need Gronkowski in the playoffs. And for the first time since 2015, they have him available for the tournament. “I’m super excited to be back out there with the team,” he said when asked about the upcoming playoff game against the Tennessee Titans earlier this week. “I wasn’t part of it last year, but not looking in the back, just looking forward to this game, man.”
Gronkowski has good reason to be excited. He projects to play a big role in the Patriots' game plan against a team that had its fair share of issues against the league's second-best tight end, the Kansas City Chiefs' Travis Kelce, last week. Furthermore, Gronkowski is coming off another highly productive regular season during which he caught 69 passes – a fitting statistic considering his enthusiasm for the number – for 1,084 yards and eight touchdowns and was voted to both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team.
When asked about his excitement for this year's playoff run in regards to last his absent during last year's, Gronkowski answered as any Patriot would. He acknowledged his excitement but simultaneously said that he was looking to the challenge ahead: “I haven’t thought about that,” the 28-year old said when asked whether it was difficult to watch his teammates play without him last year.
“As of right now I’m just super excited to be back in the playoffs, back to practice this week and super excited for the game Saturday,” Gronkowski added. “But we’ve got to take it one day at a time right now.” Despite the answer saying relatively little, it is clear that the NFL's premier tight end of his era is looking forward to tonight's game and making sure that he is ready for it.
His teammates and coaches are also happy to have the big-play tight end back for the postseason. “I forgot all about being hurt last year or going through surgery because he just works his butt off,” noted safety and fellow team captain Devin McCourty. “Every year, he puts in so much work. So, when he’s on the field, there’s no better tight end in the NFL, and I think everyone knows that.”
Having a weapon of Gronkowski's caliber at its disposal is obviously big for a Patriots offense that has struggled with injuries and inconsistency, particularly at the wide receiver position, at times during the regular season. “Seeing him be healthy throughout the year and produce at such a high level is great,” added McCourty. “It helps our team.”
“Rob’s a great player,” quarterback Tom Brady said about him. “He’s a big focal point for our offense and I think he does a great job in the run game, pass game, short, intermediate, deep.” During the 14 regular season games Gronkowski played in, he and Brady displayed their trademark chemistry – just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers – en route to the tight end leading the team in every major receiving category.
If he can keep up this level of playing during the playoffs, New England's offense – which enters the postseason as number two scoring offense in the league (the number one, the Los Angeles Rams, has already exited the tournament in the wild card round) – will be a tough one to stop on a regular basis. So, yes, the Gronkowski and the Patriots have every reason to be exited about the upcoming playoffs.
Hopefully for them, their excitement will continue until the final whistle of the Super Bowl.