FOXBORO -- During the tail end of the season, Rob Gronkowski was probably the league’s most unstoppable skill player. If any team was going to beat the Patriots, it needed to stop Gronk.
The Jaguars stopped Gronk on Sunday. They still didn’t win.
PATRIOTS 24, JAGUARS 20
The Patriots tight end was driven from the game by a helmet-to-helmet hit from Jaguars safety Barry Church. Gronk, running down the seam on a first-and-10 play with 1:28 left in the half, was hammered by Church, who really didn’t have a lot of options on the play. The throw was too up-for-grabs for Church to ignore the chance of picking it off. And by the time a pick was out of the question, the collision was inevitable.
“I just tried to dislodge the ball,” Church explained. “He’s a big dude and I was just trying to dislodge the ball but I gueess they felt it was too high of a hit. I hope he’s healthy. I know he didn’t come back so I hope he’s alright. It was a tough call but you have to go with what they call. It’s the toughest play in football. If you go low for the knees you are considered a dirty player and if you go high, they throw the flag at you. It’s a bang-bang play and I was just trying to play football. I tried to lead with my shoulder.”
Gronk was slow to rise and when he did, he was unsteady. Teammate Chris Hogan kept Gronk steady until he got some assistance to the sideline. From there, we was squired to the locker room and into the concussion protocol. He didn’t return.
The hit, the flag and the fact the Patriots would soon score a touchdown to chew into the Jaguars lead caused the inevitable discussion of what Chruch was supposed to do on that play.
The hit on Gronk is the only way Church could have done his job without just obliterating Gronks knee. If he would have just hit him low most ppl would calm him dirty. So there is nothing he can do to make everyone happy and do his job. Unless you think he should let him catch— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) January 21, 2018
Church had the same debate himself.
“It’s tough, that guy s humongous,” said Church. “If you wait for him to catch it and bring it down, he might run you over. You have to go with it and try and hit him in the right target zone but, going 100 MPH, that is nearly impossible.”
Gronk wasn’t spotted in the locker room after the game. He’ll have checkpoints to pass before he’s cleared to play in Super Bowl 52.
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FOXBORO -- It dominated the week.
What happened to Tom Brady's hand? How many stitches did he need? Was there ligament damage? Would the injury limit his ability to throw, and might Brian Hoyer have to relieve him if he can't? Could the Patriots actually win with Hoyer? Who would be the third quarterback in that situation?
It got ridiculous.
We can say that now because Brady ended up being just fine. Or at least he played that way. He threw for 120 yards and two touchdowns, both to Danny Amendola, during two fourth-quarter drives to bring the Patriots back from a 20-10 deficit and win 24-20.
From start to finish -- save for a couple of high throws on New England's third drive of the game -- Brady seemed to have his complete arsenal at his disposal. He threw long and soft to Phillip Dorsett for 31 yards off a flea-flicker during the first fourth-quarter scoring drive. Brady ripped a long and accurate throw to Amendola on third-and-18 just before the Dorsett completion. He completed passes short over the middle. He completed passes long, across the field, with some zip to the sideline.
During the Lamar hunt Trophy presentation after the game, Brady was asked what happened during the week with his hand and how it felt during the game.
"I said we'll see," Brady answered, referring to his press conference on Friday. "So how'd it go?"
Not bad. It was the 54th time he led his team to a win after facing a fourth-quarter tie or deficit, and it was the 11th time he'd done so in the postseason. Brady finished the game having completed 26-of-38 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
"It went pretty good. It went pretty good," he said. "Coach Belichick doesn’t like us talking about injuries too much. But just for you guys here, it was just a pretty good cut and I dealt with it the best I could and lucky to have the best teammates in the world because without them we’re not standing up here going to Minneapolis and playing in the Super Bowl."
Belichick was asked after the game if Brady's injury impacted the game plan in any way. The coach smiled a sort of exasperated smile.
"Not that I'm aware of," he said. ". . . I mean, look, Tom did a great job and he's a tough guy. We all know that, all right? But we're not talking about open-heart surgery here."
But we were talking about Brady. Again. And why not, given his penchant for the dramatic . . . which is exactly what Sunday was, even without the hand injury. But you don't get to eight Super Bowls in 18 years by putting much stock in the dramatic. It's about execution in critical situations, and that's what Belichick explained the Patriots were able to do to in their latest thriller.
"We made some plays that we needed to make," he said. "Yeah, the third-and-18 was a huge play to get us out of a hole, to get us started on that drive. Again, it's that kind of game. We didn’t do a lot of things well in the first half. We didn’t play very well defensively. We didn’t play very well in the red area, couldn’t convert any third downs. I know it just wasn’t the way we wanted to play the game.
"We fell behind and made more plays at the end, played better defensively, played well in the kicking game, played well offensively when we needed to. I think that’s really the mark of this team and these players, is when we need it the most that’s when we played our best. Fortunately, we were able to do that today."
And fortunately for the Patriots, the most important hand on the team -- the subject of great scrutiny for the last five days -- held up.