Patriots

Brady: Like a fine wine, Gronk's getting better with age

Brady: Like a fine wine, Gronk's getting better with age

FOXBORO -- Soon after Tom Brady, clad in what was probably a designer sweater, stepped down from the Gillette Stadium podium, Rob Gronkowski stepped up in a hooded Patriots sweatshirt. The Patriots tight end joked that he was dressed better than his quarterback.

While that might not have been the case, he certainly helped Brady look good during New England's 35-17 win over the Bengals.

PATRIOTS 35, BENGALS 17: Perry's first impressions | Curran's Best and Worst | Gronk on Bengals: They're always baiting everyone

Gronkowski caught seven passes on nine targets for a career-high 162 yards receiving and one touchdown, and Brady explained that Gronkowski -- now one of the team's longest-tenured players now in his seventh season -- has improved with age. 

"Yeah, I mean he’s only gotten better as he’s gotten older and understood more about the game and what he needs to do to prepare himself," Brady said. "He just makes so many great plays. He’s a big target and he makes any quarterback look good. If he’s uncovered, you know he’s going to get it, and there were plenty of times where he was uncovered today, but all the other guys were making plays, too.

"That’s what makes a good offense. I said that on Wednesday. It’s finding guys that are running free in the defense and we do a lot of different things to try to create that. Gronk is in a lot of different places, but when his number is called, he makes the plays."

Gronkowski ripped off gains of 32, 38 (twice) and 29 yards in the win, but his best play might've been his four-yard score. It was a well-executed pitch and catch where Gronkowski posted up on the goal line and reeled in Brady's pass that was thrown low and away from the coverage. 

"Rob was again a big factor in the game, a big target," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "[He] made a nice catch on the touchdown. I thought that was a good throw and a good catch. There wasn’t much space to get the ball in. Tom put it where they couldn’t get it. Rob made a real good catch. We got them on some seam routes. We got them on some overs and we got them against man coverage two or three times. He made some big plays."

Gronkowski now has put together two hyper-productive games in a row. He caught five passes for 109 yards last week in a win over the Browns and continues to be a matchup problem for teams forced to deal with both him and Martellus Bennett, who caught five passes for 48 yards on Sunday. 

After Bennett went for three touchdowns against the Browns last week -- a career-high -- and Gronkowski's career day on Sunday, it's a wonder what teams will have to cook up in order to stop both on a weekly basis. Bennett says the two have tried to bring the best out in one another. 

"That's what we try to do," Bennett said, "whether it's talking to each other, coaching each other up, 'Hey, what did you see, what did I see?' Pushing each other during practice and in games. It's a competition, but it's a friendly competition like, 'Hey, great play, now let me see what I can do.' When Gronk makes a play, it's like, 'I gotta make a play too.' We keep each other on our toes and bring out the best in one another."

Patriots' biggest advantage vs. Chiefs in AFC Championship Game? They have everybody this time

Patriots' biggest advantage vs. Chiefs in AFC Championship Game? They have everybody this time

FOXBORO – The biggest difference between these playoff Patriots and any other this decade? Good health.

Every year since 2012, the Patriots have had at least one major player land on injured reserve during the season and be lost for the playoffs.

IR aside, the Patriots can realistically look at 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015 as seasons that ended with losses almost completely because they took the field for their final game with key players missing or playing at severely reduced levels.

This year? Fresh as a daisy.

The only veteran Patriot the team put on IR this season was cornerback Eric Rowe. He was capably replaced by both Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson.

The other important guys who landed on IR were newcomers - running back Jeremy Hill, rookie offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn and rookie linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. They were poised to make contributions but their regular-season level with the team wasn’t established.

“I think we’ve stayed away from some of the bigger injuries, which we’re very fortunate to do,” said Tom Brady. “And you’re right, I mean, you know my belief on injuries. I think a lot of them are [preventable]. I try to take as much responsibility and accountability for my injuries as possible so that I can be out there. Sometimes you have bad luck in football. It’s obviously a contact sport. You can take a bad hit and that’s your season. Our team’s been very fortunate in that sense this year to not really take those things. The guys have done a great job staying healthy and trying to go week to week.”

It takes seeing the names to really appreciate the toll injuries exacted on previous teams.

Here are some of the key guys from previous years who were off the active roster when the playoffs came (a nod to my guy Zack Cox at NESN who tweeted the full list here):

2017: Julian Edelman, Donta Hightower, Marcus Cannon, Jonathan Jones, Malcolm Mitchell, Nate Ebner, Martellus Bennett.
2016: Rob Gronkowski, Sebastian Vollmer.
2015: LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, Jerod Mayo, Nate Solder, Ryan Wendell.
2014: Aaron Dobson, Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley.
2013: Gronkowski, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo, Sebastian Vollmer
2012: Nobody of consequence
2011: Dan Koppen, Andre Carter, Mike Wright.

Aside from IR, the 2012 season was meat when Gronk broke his arm against Houston in the Divisional Playoff and couldn’t play in the AFC Championship against the Ravens.

The 2011 Super Bowl against the Giants was also hosed by a Gronk injury – that one suffered in the AFC Championship against the Ravens. It left him a shell of himself in the Super Bowl. When Aqib Talib got obliterated in the 2013 AFC Championship by Wes Welker, the Patriots were pretty much cooked.

I’m not recalling all these injuries to play the woulda-coulda-shoulda game. It’s all hypothetical anyway.

The greater point is that, as they enter this AFC Championship Game, everybody’s tip-top. It’s astounding. Nothing wrong with Hightower or Gronk. Edelman is tip-top. Both tackles are good-to-go as is the interior offensive linemen. The secondary’s been healthy for weeks.

That can all change within one series, but if you ask what’s a greater advantage, home field or good health? I’d say good health.

“Obviously, you need your best players out there, and the guys that you expect to deliver, you need them playing well,” said Brady. “The only way to play well is to be healthy. If you have a bad whatever and you can’t do your job – if you’re a runner, run, or if you’re a thrower, throw, or if you’re a blocker, block – I mean, it’s hard to do on one arm or one leg. But, if you can feel good and you can feel like you’re trending always toward feeling your best for Sunday, I think that gives you a lot of confidence. Even some of the games we lost this year, I think you come out of those games and you think, ‘Wow, OK. A positive, we didn’t lose anybody.’ I think we’re at this point this year, and we’ve been pretty healthy to this point.”

As recognizable as Brady is as a diet/nutrition/pliability/training devotee, he didn’t resort to the TB12 Method because the Patriots were lagging behind.

As this story from Phil Perry in February 2015 demonstrated, Bill Belichick is as evangelical as anyone about the vital role nutrition plays 

And sleep (here’s Phil from February 2017 on the Patriots use of flotation tanks for kickass sleep).
 
And in 2016, Belichick went wayyyyy in-depth discussing the efforts the team expended after the 2015 season ended with practically half the team out or on the injury report for the last game.  

Predictably, Belichick didn’t want to get into a mess of salutes for his medical and training staff two days before the game. Probably feels like bad karma.

But he did allow that, given the focus the team has given to keeping their human resources available, the relative health could be a result of that.

“But,” he added. “I think in the end, it’s a combination of a lot of things. Training is like anything – it helps to have a good plan, it helps to follow the plan, and the players have worked extremely hard. There’s no pill we can take to get in condition or get stronger or get faster or anything. You’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to work at it, and you do that day after day, week after week, month after month, in some cases, year after year, and that’s how you improve, just like anything else.

“So, the players have worked really hard as a total team with a lot of consistency,” he reminded. “I think the work that, as you mentioned, the other people behind in those areas have done has been good, but it’s a combination of a lot of people working together and doing a good job. But, I think you can’t take anything away from the players. In the end, players work to get in condition. Certainly, they need a good plan, good structure – I’m not saying that – but if they don’t work hard at it, then you could have the best plan in the world, and probably aren’t going to have great results.” 

Those results have been so good they may have more to do with Sunday’s result than any other factor we whip out.

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Here's where to watch or stream New England Patriots vs. Kansas City Chiefs, AFC Championship Game

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NBC Sports Boston illustration

Here's where to watch or stream New England Patriots vs. Kansas City Chiefs, AFC Championship Game

The New England Patriots play the Chiefs in Kansas City for the AFC Championship and a trip to Super Bowl 53 at 6:40 p.m. on Sunday, January 20. Here's NBC Sports Boston's coverage throughout the day, along with a list of where else you can catch the game. . . 

  • 4 p.m.: Opening Drive
    • with Jade McCarthy and Albert Breer in Burlington, and Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry in Kansas City
    • TV: NBC Sports Boston. STREAMING: NBCSportsBoston.com
       
  • 5 p.m.: McDonald's Pregame Live
    • with Michael Holley, Troy Brown, Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich at Toby Keith's in Patriot Place at Foxboro, Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry in Kansas City, and DJ Bean in Burlington
    • TV: NBC Sports Boston. STREAMING: NBCSportsBoston.com
       
  • 6:40 p.m.: New England Patriots at Kansas City Chiefs
    • TV: CBS. STREAMING: Game PassRADIO: 98.5 The Sports Hub
    • Live Stream: "Watch Now with fuboTV - Try free trial"
       
  • Halftime Live
    • with Michael Holley, Troy Brown and Ron Ninkovich at Toby Keith's in Patriots Place at Foxboro
    • TV: NBC Sports Boston. STREAMING: NBCSportsBoston.com
       
  • At game's end: Twin River Casino and Hotel Postgame Live
    • with Michael Holley, Troy Brown, Rob Ninkovich and Albert Breer at Toby Keith's in Patriots Place at Foxboro, Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry in Kansas City, and DJ Bean in Burlington
    • TV: NBC Sports Boston. STREAMING: NBCSportsBoston.com

HARD TRUTHS

Tom E. Curran's Hard Truths on the game, presented by Plymouth Rock Assurance:

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