There’s a very odd phenomenon associated with this annual offseason countdown of the Top 20 Most Memorable Patriots Moments series that I do. It seems that each and every year, without fail, the next moment on the list ends up coinciding with an event on the NFL calendar or some bit of breaking news that ends up making the timing more or less perfect. You might think I tweak the list around to best match these events up, but I assure you, I’m way too lazy to do that; once the list is done, it’s done, and I knock them out when I have nothing better to do with my time.
And 2018 is no exception. With the recent news of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, it’s only fitting that Gronk makes his first appearance on the countdown. But first, the list so far:
20. Danny Etling gets half of the Giants fired with an 86 yard touchdown run.
19. The Patriots demolish the Jets at home to secure a playoff bye.
18. Julian Edelman bounces off a Bill and into the end zone on a 4th down conversion.
17. Some punt team acrobatics keep the Steelers from getting a touchback.
This play might not have even made the list in years past, as he was good for one of these a game, it seemed. But since they were something of a commodity in 2018, I’d be remiss if I didn’t do one more for the road.
16. Gronk magic returns with a 34 yard touchdown seam route catch against the New York Jets.
Gronk. The name strikes fear into the hearts of opposing defenses and joy into the hearts of Patriots fans. Ever since New England took Gronkowski in 2010, he has been the most dominant force in the NFL, a scoring machine, and a virtually unstoppable offensive weapon. When Brady needed a play, he went to Gronkowski. When the team was in the red zone, Gronk was the primary target. When a defensive end needed to be blocked, Gronk was there to pancake him into next week. The general thought process was that as long as the Patriots had Gronkowski, they would always have an edge over any opponent.
In 2018, however, Gronk’s production dropped. After going off against Houston with 123 yards and a score in Week 1, Gronkowski more or less vanished from the stat sheet. He remained a phenomenal blocker, but was having trouble getting separation from defenders. His red zone looks all but vanished. After the Texans, his next three games saw him catch two, four, and four targets for 110 yards combined, and he hadn’t even sniffed the end zone. You could spin it any way you wanted, but this just wasn’t the same guy we were used to seeing run rampant over the NFL. Through 11 weeks, Gronk had only notched a single touchdown on the season.
Enter the New York Jets.
Or more accurately, enter the New England Patriots into MetLife Stadium, where the Pats took on the Jets for the first of their two meetings on November 25th, 2018. While we were all still recovering from our turkey comas, New England went to New Jersey and handled the Jets to the tune of a 27-13 drubbing that saw an explosion of second half Patriots points. It was a nice win to come off the bye week with, as the Pats had been embarrassed at the hands of the Titans in Week 10 and were looking to bounce back.
And while the score indicates a lopsided victory, it’s easy to forget that it was tied at 10 going into the half, and that the Jets actually drew first blood with a nine play, 80 yard drive that saw Josh McCown connect with Jermaine Kearse to give the Jets a 7-0 lead. Given that the Patriots had recently lost 34-10 to a significantly inferior team, this was the last thing anyone wanted to see.
Luckily, the Patriots took their next possession 75 yards on just five plays. Tommy B hit Josh Gordon and Chris Hogan on his first two throws for 23 and 20 yards respectively, and then James White and all-star running back Cordarrelle Patterson added eight more yards on the ground. However, on 3rd and 2 from the Jets 24, Brady’s attempt to Edelman fell short, forcing a fourth down. There was a flag on the play - offensive holding on James White - but since it was fourth down anyway, it didn’t matter.
Or did it?
Todd Bowles decided to accept the holding penalty, moving the Patriots back 10 yards to set up 3rd and 12 from the Jets 34. A 41 yard field goal attempt would now be a 51 yard attempt if New England didn’t gain any more yards. It was a bold strategy, given Gostkowski’s leg and the fact that Bowles was giving Tom Brady another down, but the choice was made.
On that extra third down, the Patriots came out in a 3WR set with Edelman and Hogan split out to the left side, Dorsett alone on the right. James White was in the backfield for blitz support, and Gronk was lined up in the slot close to the line. At the snap, Hogan and Dorsett ran identical go routes, and Edelman ran a short sit-down route about six yards downfield. White shimmied out into the shallow flat as the outlet receiver, wide open, but nowhere near the necessary first down yardage. Gronkowski took off up the seam.
Linebacker Avery Williams was in coverage, with safety Jamal Adams right in the zone behind him. Adams, however, was eyeing Edelman, who stayed in his sit-down in order to keep Adams nearby. Gronk blew past Adams, got a step on Williams, and made the cut up the seam, right in front of Morris Claiborne. Brady, who was facing pressure, released the ball just before taking a massive shot from Henry Anderson and Leonard Williams, where it landed perfectly in Gronk’s outstretched arms. Claiborne hit Gronk with a shot as he crossed the goal line, but he held onto the ball for the touchdown. Patriots 7, Jets 7. The team wouldn’t trail for the rest of the game.
Gronk would go on to record three catches for 56 yards to go along with that TD - which, if you take away the 34 yarder, isn’t a massive statline. But I can’t think of a more quintissential Rob Gronkowski play than this one. Third and long, an important drive, a team rival. A seam route splitting two defenders, Tommy B hitting him in stride, touchdown. I could have cut and pasted those last two sentences and used them over and over for almost the past decade and would have been spot on. Gronk up the seam is so definitive of the 2010s Patriots team, and that we got to witness a little bit of that here, against the Jets, when the Patriots really needed a boost of confidence is an amazing thing. This play is made even more special now that Gronk has decided to hang up the cleats. Based on his retirement alone, I probably should have moved it up the list a bit - but there are some pretty significant moments on the horizon. So I think it’s right where it belongs here at Number 16.
Check out the play here.
Full Pats/Jets highlights here.
Thanks, Gronk. I have a funny feeling you haven’t made your last appearance on this countdown.