FOXBORO, Mass. -- Ultimately, it may be the 2014 Patriots' version of the chicken or the egg question, an unanswerable debate that sparks an endless loop of discussion without offering any way of settling the issue. But on this turn-back-the-clock Sunday, it is entertaining to wonder which came first this season in New England: Tom Brady’s resurgence or Rob Gronkowski’s return to 2011-level dominance?
No disrespect to what No. 12 has accomplished since the football world began to collectively write his career obituary about five weeks ago, but I cast my vote for the big guy. Because when the Beast is back, so are the Patriots.
Let’s be honest: You knew Brady was going to be Brady again at some point, because you get the feeling he’ll tell us when he’s done, and nobody is going to decide that but him. But it absolutely was not a given Gronkowski would be able to transform himself back into Gronk, looking and playing like the guy who almost single-handedly destroyed defenses before his body began to break down and betray him in 2012 and '13.
All the injuries and all the surgeries looked like they had taken too much of a toll for that to happen. But then the past five weeks happened, and New England hasn’t lost since. Sure, Brady has been ridiculous, and receiver Julian Edelman is a playmaking machine who becomes a threat any time the ball is even near him. But the thing that makes these Patriots truly scary -- Super Bowl scary, if you’re in the AFC -- is the sight of Gronkowski rumbling through secondaries once again, with defenders bouncing off him and hell-bent intentions for the end zone evident in his eyes.
Just ask the Denver Broncos (6-2), who entered Gillette Stadium as the team to beat in the conference and exited Sunday evening as a thoroughly beaten team, with New England laying a 43-21 whipping on the defending AFC champions. Gronkowski turned in a vintage Gronk performance, hauling in a team-high nine passes for 105 yards, a touchdown and a highlight-reel one-handed stab of a catch that was the talk of the game. Gronkowski is clearly feeling it again, and the rest of the league is officially on notice.
"It’s like just Gronk being Gronk," said Edelman, who tied Gronkowski with nine catches, for 89 yards, with a five-yard receiving score and an 84-yard punt return for a score. "I tell you right now, I’ve played with a lot of guys and playing with Gronk is ... he’s just fun to play with. He’s like a little kid and he makes the game exciting. He goes out there and makes one-handed catches, and he goes out there and he looks like he’s playing against his little brother sometimes. He’s just a beast."
Coming off his December 2013 knee injury, it’s hard to say exactly what prompted Gronkowski’s recent five-game spree of production, and where all those catches and yards and touchdowns were in the season’s first four games. Maybe his legs just finally felt right again, and after being eased back into full-time duty early this season, something clicked in his game. But he’s playing fearlessly again. He’s throwing his body around and cutting it loose, in a way we haven’t really seen since injuries started to overtake his story in 2012.
In short, he has his Gronk on again.
The results have been startling, ever since the Patriots’ statement-game win at home against Cincinnati. In those five games, Gronkowski has caught 36 passes for 516 yards and five touchdowns. Three times he’s had 100-yard games, and he just missed a fourth, making seven catches for 94 yards in a Week 6 win at Buffalo. The past two weeks, Gronkowski has been on fire, catching 18 balls on 19 targets for 254 yards and four touchdowns -- three of those against the overwhelmed Bears defense a week ago at Gillette. And did we mention New England is averaging 40 points scored in those five games, moving from 2-2 to 7-2 and into control of the AFC’s top playoff seed after Sunday?
Some in New England say they knew Gronkowski -- who’s still only 25 -- was close to back even in the midst of the Patriots' worst loss of the season, that 41-14 humbling they endured on a Monday night in Kansas City in Week 4. Gronkowski scored one of the Patriots' late touchdowns, dragging multiple Chiefs defenders into the end zone with him. With that, his mojo seemed to return. And his unique blend of size, speed and athleticism has been on display ever since.
Never more so than on his spectacular one-handed catch in the fourth quarter, when he went high to snare the ball with his left hand, while twisting his body back to the left and doing his best to fend off Denver safety T.J. Ward and linebacker Nate Irving. The Patriots challenged the call that Gronkowski was down by contact at the Denver 1, but it was upheld. On the next play, Brady found him again for the touchdown on a one-yard slant. It was Gronkowski’s 50th career receiving touchdown, tying the franchise record for tight ends with Ben Coates and putting him among the all-time NFL leaders for most touchdown catches in a player’s first five seasons.
"Incredible," said Brady, when asked about Gronkowski’s one-hander. "That was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t get any better than that. I wish they’d have given him the touchdown. He made an incredible catch, and I mean, I’ve never seen anything like that."
Brady has seen it before, but the real question surrounding Gronkowski was whether we’d ever see those kind of catches from him again. Surgeries on his legs, back and forearm combined to cost him 14 games the past two seasons, and still he leads all NFL tight ends in touchdown catches since 2010. When healthy, Gronk is as dangerous a target as there is in the NFL. And he’s healthy. At long last.
"I saw it on replay, and it was a pretty good catch," Gronkowski said of his headline moment. "Tom threw it where I could make that play, so it just happened. It’s just a reaction -- going for the ball. You see the ball and you want to go for it. It’s a natural reaction to go get it, so it ended up being one-handed, so it was pretty cool."
Brady found four different Patriots' receivers for touchdowns, upping his totals to 18 touchdown passes against just one interception during the course of New England’s five-game hot streak. Spreading the ball around has been a part of every Patriots run of sustained success, and Brady’s 33-of-53 passing performance for 333 yards and a 97.4 rating again overshadowed what Peyton Manning turned in for the Broncos: 34-of-57 for 438 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and an 80.9 rating. The Patriots trailed 7-3 in the first quarter, then outscored Denver 40-14 the rest of the way, elevating New England back into the Super Bowl discussion.
"[Brady’s] playing unbelievable right now, and so is the team," Gronkowski said. "Everyone, we’re just coming together. We’ve got team chemistry all over and we’re all playing well. Spreading the ball around is keeping everyone lethal and keeping everyone as a weapon."
But Gronkowski is the weapon that matters most these days in New England, because he’s the one they were missing for a good chunk of the past two years.
When he’s right, the Patriots are right. And when the Patriots are right, the rest of the NFL has reason to worry.