Phil Perry

Gronkowski on pace for max earnings, ready for his crack at Falcons

Gronkowski on pace for max earnings, ready for his crack at Falcons

FOXBORO -- Despite missing one game this season, Rob Gronkowski is on track for a big year that would pay him more than double what he's scheduled to earn in 2017.

A thigh issue held the Patriots tight end out of action in Week 5 against the Buccaneers, yet he's still 12th in the league in receiving yards (401) and third among tight ends, behind only Travis Kelce (423) and Zach Ertz (405). His four touchdowns put him in the top-10 pass-catchers in the league in that category, and his six catches of 20 yards or more is tied for 14th. 

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If Gronkowski stays healthy and is on the field for the final 10 regular-season games of the year, he's on pace for 78 catches for 1,203 yards and 12 touchdowns. Those numbers would put him in contention for a first-team All-Pro nod, which would earn him the max $10.75 million for 2017 that's been written into his incentive-laden contract for this season.

But even if he isn't an All-Pro -- say Kelce and Ertz continue to have excellent seasons -- Gronkowski's 1,200 receiving yards would also trigger the max value of his deal. Seventy catches, 1,000 receiving yards or 12 touchdowns would trigger the second tier of Gronkowski's incentives, paying him $8.75 million. Sixty catches, 800 yards or 10 touchdowns would pay him $6.75 million -- up from the minimum of $5.25 million he's  guaranteed for this season.

Against Atlanta, he'll have a chance to combat the Falcons team speed in a way that he wasn't able to last February when he missed the Super Bowl following season-ending back surgery. 

"It feels great to be back playing, but I mean, it’s a whole new year," he said Wednesday. "It’s a whole new week. They’ve got different players now. We’ve got different players. They’ve got a different scheme a little bit from all the different players. We’ve got a little different scheme from all the new players that we have, so it’s a whole new game. It’s a whole new challenge this week and we’ve just got to work hard this week and get ready for Sunday night."

The Falcons defense features young and athletic players like linebackers Deion Jones and Duke Riley as well as pass-rusher Vic Beasley and safety Keanu Neal, but they haven't been all that stout against opposing tight ends in 2017. Per Football Outsiders, they rank 19th in defending tight ends, allowing 61.4 yards per game on 8.9 pass attempts. 

The Patriots could wind up seeing 6-foot-4, 232-pound linebacker De'Vondre Campbell on Gronkowski on Sunday night. He and Neal have been the primary defenders on tight ends in recent weeks, and against the Lions last month Campbell was targeted five times and allowed zero catches while covering tight end Eric Ebron.

"They're a good defense," Gronkowski said. "You've got to go out there and you've got to play your best football. I feel like at any time, any given time, if I'm not playing my best football, if I'm not taking the coaching points, if I’m not doing the things right out there on the field then I feel like I could be covered by any one.

"But also at the same time, if I’m doing things right, feeling good, taking the coaching points then I feel like I can get open on anyone. It just all comes down to playing the game this coming Sunday night."

The problem for Atlanta is that Gronkowski is playing his best football right now. And if he keeps it up, he'll be paid accordingly.

Brady to mom Galynn in middle of 2016 season: 'You'll be ready for the Super Bowl'

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Brady to mom Galynn in middle of 2016 season: 'You'll be ready for the Super Bowl'

She hadn't been able to get to a game all season, but Tom Brady had a feeling that his mom would be well enough to make it to the last one. 

"He said, 'You'll be ready for the Super Bowl,' " Tom Brady Sr. told NFL Network's Andrea Kremer. "He told us that in the middle of the season. At the end of her five months was going to be two weeks before the Super Bowl."

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Brady's mom, Galynn, was diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2016 and was undergoing chemotherapy throughout that season. As she focused on her treatments (which were scheduled for Thursday mornings), Galynn and Tom Sr. spent Sundays watching their son's games from afar. 

"Everything centered around 10 o'clock on Thursday morning," Tom Sr. said, "and then 10 o'clock on Sunday morning when we focused on the football games."

The Patriots continued to win, and the end of their season continued to be pushed back, making it possible for Galynn and Tom Sr. to attend their son's seventh Super Bowl. She was cleared for travel by her doctors on the day before the family's scheduled trip to Houston.

"I just wanted to be there for Tommy, and I wanted to be there with my family," she said. "Everybody was going to the Super Bowl, and I didn't want to miss that."

Kremer's piece aired Sunday on NFL Network's NFL GameDay Morning, as the league and the American Cancer Society work together this month on their Crucial Catch campaign. It's online now at NFL.com.

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

Tom Brady on pace for huge numbers, so why is he down on his play of late?

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady is on pace for 5,224 yards passing in 2017, just a shade under his total from his career-high in 2011. He's on track to have 34 touchdowns and just five picks. Barring a continued run of ridiculous efficiency from Kansas City's Alex Smith, those numbers would be MVP-caliber in all likelihood.

But Brady's not thrilled with the way he's played of late. What gives? 

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In his past two games, he hasn't thrown the football as consistently as he would have liked. After starting the season with a 10-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio, he's 3-to-2 in the last couple of weeks. His accuracy has been at times pinpoint (as it was on his 42-yard completion to Brandin Cooks to help set up a Rob Gronkowski score against the Jets), but it has also been uncharacteristically erratic.

He was picked deep down the middle of the field by Buster Skrine last week, but the more concerning throw may have been the quick out-route to Gronkowski that Skrine dropped for what should have been an easy interception. Brady missed Phillip Dorsett on what looked like it could have been a long touchdown with Dorsett running free behind the defense. He threw behind Chris Hogan twice in the game, one of which opened up Hogan to a rib-shot that landed him on the injury report this week.

Against the Jets, Brady was not sacked and he was hit only four times -- a light day for him compared to other weeks this season when he's been battered. Yet he still completed just under 53 percent of his passes for 257 yards and a season-low 6.76 yards per attempt. 

"Well, I've got to hit the open . . . If the throws are there I've got to be able to make them," he said on Friday. "It's disappointing when I don't. To me, it just comes back to technique and fundamentals and making sure everything is working and that's the consistent daily thing that you're working on. I'm always working on my accuracy.

"I wish I hit them all. I'm capable of hitting them all and I need to be able to do that. I said last week that some of these games wouldn't be as close if I was playing better in the red area. I think some of those missed opportunities in the pass game with me hitting guys would really help our team. Hopefully, I can do a better job for this team."

Brady is no longer listed on the Patriots injury report, but he dealt with a left shoulder injury against both the Bucs and the Jets, and it's worth wondering if that somehow impacted how his passes traveled in those games. Balance is key in Brady's world, and even though he can make flat-footed throws look easy, perhaps an injury to his front side limited his ability to place the ball where he wanted. 

Keeping Brady upright could go a long way in helping the 40-year-old regain his form from Weeks 2-4 when he didn't dip below a 104 quarterback rating. Bill Belichick said earlier this week that part of the reason the Jets pass-rush wasn't quite as effective as others they'd faced this year was his team's ability to run the ball. Productive rushing attempts on first and second down mean manageable third downs, which mean shorter pass attempts. Those of course, in theory, lead to less time standing in the pocket and a healthier quarterback.

"It's great," Brady said of his team's recent surge running the football. "I mean, to be able to run the ball consistently in the NFL is important for every offense. It does take a lot of . . . I wouldn't say pressure, it's just production. If 400 yards of offense is what you're looking for and you can get 150 from your running game, the 250 has got to come in the passing game. If you're getting 50 yards in the rushing game then it means you've got to throw for more.

"I don't think it's pressure it's just overall you're going to get production in different areas and the backs are a big part of our offense and handing the ball off to them is an easy way for us to gain yards if we're all coordinated and doing the right thing. But those guys are running hard. The line is doing a great job up front finishing blocks and so forth."

Against the Falcons and their talented -- though underperforming -- offense this weekend, the running game could be key. First, it could help the Patriots defense by controlling possession and keeping Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman off the field. Next are the obvious advantages for the signal-caller who could use a stress-free day in the pocket to help him solve his recent accuracy issues. 

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