A few years ago, as I was breaking down the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments of 2014 (the start of the 2018 countdown is just a few weeks away!), I decided to take a little bit of creative license with the word “moment” and just lumped the entirety of the absolute classic that was Patriots vs. Ravens in the 2014 AFC Divisional Round into one article. The Patriots won that game 35-31, didn’t take the lead until late in the 4th quarter, and it wasn’t over until the very last second of the game as a Joe Flacco Hail Mary pass fell short of the end zone. It was one of the most stressful, heart-stopping, amazing games in Patriots history, and I just couldn’t isolate a single moment from it. Pats/Ravens would ultimately find itself in the Number Two slot, second only to the blockbuster trade that ended up sending Tim Wright over to New England, and to this day it’s a game people talk about as one of the best ever.
And as I was breaking down the game for that article, I decided to give myself the gift of a few paragraphs describing what I considered to be the single greatest throw that Tom Brady has ever made: a 23 yard touchdown strike to Brandon LaFell to put the Patriots ahead with just over five minutes left in the contest. You can go ahead and watch it again here; LaFell was the lone weak side receiver as Brady motioned Brandon Bolden into the backfield for blocking support. Rashaan Melvin was playing tight, trying to jam LaFell at the line, but LaFell got an outside release and Brady was able to put the ball directly into his bread basket right in between two Ravens defenders as he crossed the goal line. It was just an otherworldly throw, beautifully set up by several plays as the Patriots marched down the field, and as he has so many times in his career, Tommy B came up huge when he was needed. I went back and watched that play another dozen times as I wrote this article, and every single time it gives me chills. I didn’t think I’d ever see anything like it ever again.
Now let’s fast forward to a few years later - February 3rd, 2019.
The Patriots are in a defensive dogfight with the Rams, and neither team could get anything going on offense. With just under eight minutes to play, the Patriots needed a drive. They needed points. They needed...something.
And they got it.
Lining up in the same formation three times in a row, Brady found Gronk, Edelman, and Rex Burkhead to move the Patriots down to the Rams 31. On 2nd and 3, Brady was able to find Gronk for 29 yards to set New England up at the LA two. The very next play, Sony Michel punched it into the end zone, and it ended up being the game.
Michel’s run was great, will-imposing blocking and following the best fullback this team has ever seen. But let’s talk about that throw to Gronk for a minute.
But first - do yourself a favor and watch it again.
Gronk was in the slot. He was the lone receiver on the weak side with Rex Burkhead motioned out wide, forcing the Rams to adjust their coverage - linebacker Cory Littleton forced to motion over to cover Gronkowski as Marcus Peters was stuck with Burkhead. Burkhead ran five yards and stopped, freezing Peters for a brief moment, as Gronkowski made a quick inside move, juked, and then got outside leverage.
Tom Brady, holding onto the ball for less than three seconds, released an arcing spiral into a 12 foot window 29 yards down the field where the three - THREE - Rams converging upon Gronkowski were not.
Upon Brady’s release, Gronk was still covered.
Halfway through the air, Gronk was still covered.
But as the ball began it’s downward descent, Gronk got the few feet of separation he needed and came down with the ball as it landed right in his hands.
Right in his hands.
It’s remarkable - if you watch the LaFell throw and the Gronk throw side by side, they’re almost identical. The only difference, really, is that Gronk had three defenders around him and the window was a little bigger, whereas LaFell was running towards double coverage and Brady had maybe a yard of open space with which to thread that needle as opposed to three. But everything else - the route, the dropback, the release, the throw - were exactly the same. He made two superhuman passes in two playoff games to give his team points when they needed them most.
I don’t know if I can officially declare that pass to Gronk the single greatest throw that Tom Brady has ever made - my love for that LaFell pass knows no bounds. I just went back and watched it a few more times, just for fun. But I would be foolish not to consider changing my stance. With Gronk, the stakes were higher. There were more defenders. It was infinitely more impactful on both the game and Brady’s legacy. The world was watching. It was probably the last pass that Rob Gronkowski will ever catch in his Hall of Fame career.
And it was perfect.
So go ahead. Talk about cliffs. Talk about Brady’s statistically mediocre day. Talk about how he didn’t win MVP or pass for a touchdown. Knock yourself out. Because that throw to Rob Gronkowski, on the biggest stage, at the most crucial moment, was yet another masterstroke from the best to ever do it.
Never lose sight of how lucky we are.