It’s not a hard and fast rule, but one can generally get a sense for how Rob Gronkowski is feeling by watching his celebrations. So, while the 109 yards receiving he had last week and the 162 he posted in Sunday’s win over the Bengals were nice, the biggest signs that the Patriots have their Gronk back came after the whistle.
First, there was the signature Gronkowski power spike, which came after he and Tom Brady connected for a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Later, as hostilities grew between the Bengals and Patriots, Gronkowski exchanged words with multiple Bengals and then was flagged for taunting as he sauntered near the Bengals sideline.
Gronkowski is not the most important player on New England’s roster—Tom Brady still holds that title by a substantial margin. But he brings the swagger.
“I felt a lot better out there this week, just throughout the week,” Gronkowsi said after New England’s Week 5 win in Cleveland. “Just was improving every single day, every single week. Now I’m getting back to my old self, so it feels great.”
Great for him, and great for the Patriots. Sunday started rocky for them, in Tom Brady’s first 2016 home game after his suspension ended last week. The Bengals kept the New England passing game under wraps for two-plus quarters, forcing Brady into multiple sacks and throwaways.
Linebacker Dont’a Hightower turned the momentum by sacking Andy Dalton for a safety in the third quarter, trimming Cincinnati’s lead to 14–12. The Patriots kept the ball rolling by feeding their ludicrously talented TE tandem of Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. That duo combined for 176 yards and three touchdowns (all of the latter from Bennett) in Brady’s return seven days ago.
In the drive which followed Hightower’s safety, they totaled 69 yards, capped by a four-yard Gronk touchdown and the aforementioned emphatic spike.
And from there, the Patriots’s offense took over. Brady’s next pass was another completion Gronkowski’s way, for 38 yards. The connection was the 5,000th of Brady’s career and gave Gronkowski his 22nd career 100-yard game.
No one ought to pretend the Patriots are infallible. Up until Dalton took that sack in his own end zone, the Bengals had dictated the game’s arc rather well, especially considering the challenge they faced playing in Foxborough with Brady returning. There is a huge challenge, though, in having to face Gronkowski and Bennett together—no other team comes close to matching that 1–2 punch at tight end. The amount of attention they demand frees up their teammates, too, as has been the case with James White (eight receptions, two touchdowns) and Chris Hogan (four catches for 114 yards last week, a key 39-yard grab Sunday).
Brady’s total line since rejoining the lineup proves why he deserves to be excited over the Patriots’s offensive talent. In two games, both wins, he has thrown for 782 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions.
It all sets up a crucial coming two weeks for New England: at Pittsburgh next Sunday and at Buffalo on the 30th. Despite a half-hearted loss to Miami this week, the Steelers are one of the Patriots’s main challengers in the AFC. The Bills, meanwhile, have run off four straight—including a win over the Brady-less Pats—to keep the AFC East race cooking.
For either of those teams to knock off New England, they’ll have to start by first slowing Gronkowski and Bennett. That’s about as tough a task as there is defensively, especially when Gronkowski is feelin’ it like he is right now.